Arsenal Champions League Draw: Breaking Down Group B for the Gunners
Drawn in Pot One (there were four pots in total, with teams divided according to seed), Arsenal discovered during the Group Stage Draw in Monaco that they will face Schalke 04, Olympiacos and Montpellier Herault in the Champions League this season.
Montpellier are newcomers to the competition, but Schalke and Olympiacos are both old hands. The Greeks' best finish in recent memory was a run to the Round of 16 in 2009-10, where they lost 1-3 on aggregate to Bordeaux, and Schalke memorably got to the semifinals in 2010-11, where they fell to Manchester United (1-6 agg).
It marks the second season in a row that the Gunners will meet Olympiacos, and the third time in the past four (they were both drawn in Group H in the 2009-10 edition, and Group F a season ago).
Arsenal's new signing Olivier Giroud will face his former club Montpellier, with whom he vaulted to stardom after scoring a combined 39 league goals from 2010-12.
It promises to be a fascinating group. Here's a complete guide to each of the Gunners' opponents.
Montpellier Herault SC
2011-12 Champions League: DNQ.
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st place in Ligue 1, automatic.
Manager: Rene Girard (fourth season).
Captain: Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa.
Stadium: Stade de la Mosson (cap: 32,900).
Key Additions: Emmanuel Herrera (center forward), Daniel Congre (center back), Anthony Mounier (winger), Gaetan Charbonnier (center forward).
Key Departures: Olivier Giroud (forward), Gregory Lacombe (winger), Geoffrey Dernis (winger).
Team Preview: Few would have predicted a league triumph—the first in club history—for Montpellier heading into last season, but Girard's side finally burst through that wall with a show of supreme consistency.
Giroud was a massive reason behind the success, pouring in 21 goals—a tally good enough to tie him at the league lead alongside Paris Saint-Germain's Nene. The 6'3" striker has departed for Arsenal, leaving a chasm at the forward position.
Girard will hope to replace that scoring output with the additions of talented youngsters Herrera and Charbonnier, but it's the elder statesman John Utaka who could have the greatest impact while those two find their feet.
The Nigerian forward has looked lively in the early going this season, providing two assists during league play—he will look to combine with striker Souleymane Camara and winger Emanuel Herrera.
Scorer of nine goals last season, Camara found the back of the net in the league opener but has been held scoreless in Montpellier's most recent two matches—both of which were losses.
The decision of Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, one of France's best young center backs, to stay on at the club this season was a huge victory for Girard. The squad depth will be stretched enough as is with the demands of the UCL, but Yanga-Mbiwa, along with Congre, should help solidify the back line.
Player to Watch: Younes Belhanda.
The Moroccan playmaker has rocketed to the fore of Ligue 1's top tier of players, enjoying a sensational campaign in 2011-12.
His ingenuity in the final third has caught the eye of some of Europe's top clubs, and while there was interest this past summer, the allure of Champions League football this season enticed Belhanda to stay on at the southern French club.
The competition has a habit of bringing out the best in attacking midfielders—remember Wesley Sneijder's phenomenal form in the 2009-10 edition—and it stands to reason that Belhanda could emerge as a major player this time around.
Fun Fact: In 1989, the club changed its name from Montpellier Paillade Sport Club Littoral (MPSCL) to Montpellier Hérault Sport Club after it received financial support from the General Council of Hérault. It has used the name ever since. (Wikipedia.)
2011-12 Champions League: 3rd in Group F, DNQ for knockout stages.
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 1st place in Greek Superleague, automatic.
Manager: Leonardo Jardim (first season).
Captain: Vasilis Torosidis.
Stadium: Kiraiskakis Stadium (cap: 32,115).
Key Additions: Paulo Machado (central midfielder), Leandro (central midfielder), Panagiotis Vlachodimos (winger), Konstantinos Mitroglou (forward, return from loan).
Key Departures: Kevin Mirallas (winger/forward), Olof Mellberg (central defense).
Team Preview: The transfer of Mirallas to Everton has dominated headlines in recent weeks, with the talented forward joined out the club door by Mellberg, who departs Piraeus (it's located about 12 miles from the Athenian city center) after three seasons with the club to join Villarreal.
Mirallas's 20 goals led the Greek Superleague last season, and his menace will be missed. But even with some new faces in the side, Arsenal know Olympiacos quite well having faced the in two of the past three Champions League campaigns.
Olympiacos are coming off a tremendously successful domestic campaign, which saw them win the domestic double.
The return of Mitroglou, who scored 17 goals while on loan last season Atromitos, could be an intriguing option up top, but it is the goalscoring acumen of Rafik Djebbour—who has nabbed 20 goals since signing for the Erythrolefki in January 2011—who could provide the greatest threat.
Arsenal have lost on both previous trips to the Kiraiskakis, in 2009 and 2011, although both those matches fell on the last day of group stage play, with the Gunners already having sealed qualification for the knockout stages. Thus, the first team did not travel for the game.
But the first team was on hand for the Sept. 28 match a season ago, which saw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain handed his European debut at the Emirates. Though they emerged 2-1 winners against Olympiacos, it was a nervy showing from the Gunners, who needed Oxlade-Chamberlain's opener (Andre Santos got the second) to cancel David Fuster's goal for the visitors.
Player to Watch: Djebbour.
Scorer of a goal away to Borussia Dortmund during last season's Champions League group stages, Djebbour will be counted upon to help mop up the loss of Mirallas's exploits this season.
A natural goal scorer, the Algerian combines a superb sense of balance with an exquisite finishing touch—one that has helped him acclimate quite well to the climes of Olympiacos, where he simply has not stopped scoring since joining a year and a half ago.
When last season's Champions League campaign was through, Djebbour had appeared in five of Olympiacos' six group stage matches, enjoying a terrific return of two goals. He started both games against Arsenal, scoring in the home match on Dec. 6.
Fun Fact: Founded in 1925, the club did not enjoy the sort of zealous following seen today among Athenian locals before the Andrianopoulos brothers, who "significantly raised the reputation of the club and added glory to it."
Members of a prosperous family, the Andrianopoulos brothers made the name of Olympiacos known over Greece. Yannis, Dinos, Giorgos and Vassilis were the first to play. Leonidas made his appearance later on and played for a long time (1927–1935). The club's offensive line, made up of the five brothers, soon became legendary. (Taken verbatum from Wikipedia.)
FC Schalke 04
2011-12 Champions League: DNQ.
How They Qualified for 2012-13: 3rd place in German Bundesliga, automatic.
Manager: Huub Stevens (second season).
Captain: Benedikt Höwedes.
Stadium: Veltins Arena (cap: 61,673).
Key Additions: Chinedu Obasi (winger), Tranquillo Barnetta (winger), Roman Neustadter (defensive midfield).
Key Departures: Ciprean Deac (attacking midfield), Raul (striker).
Team Preview: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Lewis Holtby both found the back of the net in Schalke's season debut against Hannover, which ended in a 2-2 tie.
Huntelaar was absolutely brilliant a season ago, scoring 29 league goals and 48 in all competitions. While he faltered somewhat at the European Championships with Holland, he has shown none of the same ineffectiveness at club level since joining Die Konigsblauen.
Holtby scored 16 in league and 25 overall from midfield, while also providing six assists once the campaign had gone. His versatility—he headed in his goal against Hannover—could prove an interesting commodity once Schalke get their Champions League campaign underway.
It's easy to forget that this side made it all the way to the semifinals two seasons ago, where they lost to Manchester United. Out of the competition last term, there are still plenty of players remaining from that impressive side, including the pacy Jefferson Farfan at winger and Atsuto Uchida at fullback.
While Champions League glory was never a possibility in 2011-12, Schalke did make it to the Europa League quarterfinals, where they gave eventual runners-up Athletic Bilbao all they could handle before bowing out on a 4-6 aggregate.
Schalke earned 64 points in last season's Bundesliga, finishing third behind Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Like the other two German teams in the competition, they could provide some interesting games, and will be at their best in what promises to be a raucous encounter with the Gunners in Gelsenkirchen.
They're led by the 24-year-old captain Höwedes, who has gone through the youth ranks of the club to become one of the most highly-rated central defenders in German football.
Be sure to keep an eye on 18-year-old Julian Draxler. The latest in a long line of talented midfielders to emerge in the German setup, the 6'2" player has made 45 appearances for Schalke since breaking into the first team in 2010. Blessed with brilliant vision, Draxler combines that skill with a terrific sense in the final third. Passes, goals, the kid can do it all.
Player to Watch: Hotlby.
Just 21 years old, Holtby has been a bright light in the German youth set up for years. While he didn't make Joachim Low's side for the European Championships this summer, he's already earned two caps at the senior level and is poised to earn more as he continues to grow.
His breakthrough came on a season-long loan deal with Mainz in 2010-11. Holtby made 30 appearances for the Bundesliga side, chipped in four goals and earned rave reviews for his play in central midfield.
Holtby flirted with rumors linking him to Everton this summer, and with his contract set to expire at the end of this season, negotiations could make for some interesting developments.
For now, viewers can enjoy Holtby's superb talent in the Champions League. Possessor of a hugely impressive technical ability, Holtby combines that skill with some bits of spontaneous brilliance. Little flicks here, deft touches there, Holtby is a constant menace in midfield.
Fun Fact: Holtby's father, Chris Holtby, is a former English soldier from Liverpool who was stationed at the Rheindahlen RAF base in Mönchengladbach. Holtby had the option of playing for England before he decided to commit his international future to Germany. (Wikipedia).
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