Arsenal: Breaking Down Gunners' Opponents in the Champions League Group Stage
Last week, we were all excited to see which teams Arsenal would be drawn against in the group stage of this season's Champions League.
I should take a moment to recognize just how fortunate the Gunners are to have their seat with Europe's big boys. If Tottenham had been just two points better last season, Chelsea's remarkable defeat of Bayern Munich in May would have pushed Arsenal out of the Champions League.
And yet here we are, with the exciting prospect of a new European campaign ahead of us and the first continental fixture of the season: an away trip to Montpellier, less than two weeks away.
While Arsenal were not handed the list of cupcake teams that Manchester United is somehow blessed with every season, they avoided the group of death (which is deadlier than a python this year) and still have a slate of opponents that is easy enough to ease fears of any early exit but strong enough to make things interesting.
Just like last season, Arsenal will face a French side, a German side and Olympiakos, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
To whet your appetite while club football is on hiatus during the international break, let's have a look at each of the Gunners' group stage opponents, starting with:
The whipping boys of the group last season, Arsenal were able to dispatch with the Greek minnows relatively easily at home and trot out a reserve side on the road when the group was already won.
And that was when they had the best goalscorer in Greece, in the form of Kevin Mirallas, on their side.
Now, Mirallas is shining with Everton, and Olympiakos are, on paper, a slightly weaker side than the one that was easily dispatched by each bigger team last year.
The Greeks still have threatening Spanish midfielder David Fuster, who impressed me when I saw him against Arsenal last year, and Rafik Djebbour's 22 league goals in 33 games are nothing to diminish.
Nevertheless, I don't expect any miracles from Olympiakos this season.
The biggest reason why Montpellier are representing France as the champions of Ligue 1 in the Champions League is now playing for Arsenal.
No doubt, it will hurt the French team's chances greatly that its star striker and best player, Olivier Giroud, has departed and will be trying to hurt his former team with goals, rather than carry it.
While the absence of Giroud is likely a crushing blow to Montpellier's hopes of advancing to the knockout stage, there are still some fantastic players in the squad from the title-winning side of last season who have stuck around to help the team in Europe.
John Utaka, who scored the goal that sealed the title for the French minnows in May, remains a huge threat from either the wing or at striker, and there were rumors all summer linking captain and defensive linchpin Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa with Arsenal.
The player the Gunners will really have to watch out for—and it wouldn't surprise me if Arsene Wenger turned his keen eye for talent to—is Younes Belhanda. The midfield dynamo is the heart and soul of Montpellier, and his creativity and class could really worry Arsenal's defence.
If I had to pick one side that could legitimately threaten Arsenal's predicted place at the top of this group, it would definitely be Schalke, who have threatened Europe's elite in the past.
The Germans' strength clearly lies in attack. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, the Bundesliga's leading goal scorer last season, is the fearsome head of an attack that features stars such as Julian Draxler, Jefferson Farfan, Lewis Holtby, Tranquillo Barnetta and, most recently added to the squad, Dutch winger Ibrahim Afellay.
If that's not enough, American Jermaine Jones serves as the midfield's anchor. While I know he's streaky for watching him play for the Stars and Stripes, Jones can be a dynamic player when he's in the mood.
Add German international Benedikt Howedes to a defence that has already proven able to stand its ground, and Schalke turns into a well-rounded side that, especially at home, will be extremely tough to take down.
They emphasize attack, but balance it with defence well enough to conceal what faults they have. Like Borussia Dortmund last season, Schalke will definitely pose a challenge.
So, while each team in Arsenal's group presents its own challenges and has shown itself to be more than competent in its own domestic league, this is a group from which the Gunners should emerge the winner. Anything less will be a disappointment given their success last year.
If one thing is certain, though, it is that Arsenal fans are poised to have yet another riveting European season on their hands.
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