Montpellier vs. Arsenal: 6 Key Battles to Watch in Champions League Clash
The Champions League 2012-'13 is finally about to begin and Arsenal travel to the Stade de la Mosson in Southern France to take on French champions Montpellier for Matchday 1.
Arsene Wenger has moved on since Robin van Persie left the club for pastures new in the summer and is ready to launch a new assault on the one trophy that has eluded him so far. During the close-season Le Prof captured three of the most exciting attacking talents in Europe as he completely re-designed the Gunners' prolific attack.
Lukas Podolski, Santi Cazorla and ex-Montpellier striker Olivier Giroud have come in to spearhead a strike-force that can and will take the game to any team in Europe and they will be looking to make their mark in Matchday 1.
Montpellier, last season's surprise Ligue 1 champions, are perhaps more famous for their eccentric owner, Louis Nicollin, than their football, but they will be hoping to showcase their talents in their debut season in Europe's premier club competition.
First up to the Stade de la Mosson will be Arsenal where Rene Girard, Montpellier's manager, will be looking to put one over on the man who has arguably influenced English and French football more than any other, Arsene Wenger.
Here we look at six key battles for Montpellier vs. Arsenal in Champions League Matchday 1.
Read on and leave your comments and thoughts on the game in the section below.
Rene Girard vs. Arsene Wenger
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Last season Montpellier left every team in Ligue 1 in their wake as they romped to the title. Much of that can be credited to two men—Rene Girard and Oliver Giroud.
Giroud was one of Ligue 1's most outstanding players last year and weighed in with 21 goals and nine assists as La Paillade held off big-spending Paris St. Germain to claim the first league title in the club's history.
Girard is an extremely flexible manager and frequently changes his set-up to suit the opposition and often uses formations ranging from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 and 4-3-3 type systems.
Quite often, against the better teams, he will choose to utilise a 4-4-2 as he feels the two strikers up-front gives his team an advantage when pressurising the opposition defence. This season he has almost exclusively used a 4-4-2 in every single game with the exception of a 4-5-1 for their 3-1 defeat to Stade de Reims.
For Arsenal, Arsene Wenger is unlikely to move away from his favoured 4-5-1 formation which can become a 4-3-3 at the flick of a switch.
By utilising this system the Gunners often out-number their opponents in midfield and in that way they go on to dominate possession.
Girard will know this so it will be very interesting to see how he combats Arsenal's midfield. Because if he goes against type, this season, and chooses a 4-5-1, Wenger will force his full-backs to bomb on into midfield while Montpellier's full-backs will be terrified to move in case the likes of Podolski, Oxlade-Chamberlain or even Giroud get in behind them.
Last season the Gunners pulled off a memorable 1-0 in the cauldron that is the Stade Velodrome in Marseille so a further two-hour trip down the road to Montpellier is not likely to phase them regardless of what formation Girard chooses.
Olivier Giroud vs. the Club Where He Made His Name
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This will be a special sort of homecoming for Olivier Giroud. The £13 million striker enjoyed two memorable seasons with Montpellier and when he signed for Arsenal in the summer he would never have imagined in a million years that he would be heading back home after just two-and-a-half months.
He was dropped by Wenger for Arsenal's 6-1 mauling of Southampton at the Emirates. However, one feels that this was perhaps a wise move by the Gunners manager as there is little doubt that Giroud is struggling to deal with the pressure of having to score while adapting to a new style of play.
This season only Henri Bedimo-Nsame and captain Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa have been able to retain their places in the Montpellier defence so Giroud is likely to see some very familiar faces if and when he takes to the field.
Speaking to Arsenal.com, Giroud spoke of his eagerness to do well against his old club.
“To return to Montpellier is very special because I spent two very happy years there which were fantastic,” Giroud said. “Montpellier is a family club and I left a lot of friends behind—everybody who works at the club and the players."
“I spent a beautiful, wonderful season there last year when we were champions and won the title. It was a fantastic achievement for Montpellier to win the French championship and there was a lot of emotion when we won."
“It will be difficult for me to play against Montpellier, because there is a lot of emotion and I have so many good memories of last season. I left a lot of friends and it’s going to be great to see them."
“But only after the game will I talk to anyone. This is an important match and I will be concentrating on it. I will not speak with my friends until afterwards.”
“I want to score in every match, but if I score against Montpellier I will keep the celebration small,” he said. “That is normal for anybody, for the club and Montpellier fans. It will be out of my respect to my old club
“I’m an Arsenal player and I want to score and to win this game for Arsenal. It will be my first game in the Champions League, so I want to win it.
“Of course we are playing against Montpellier, but it is an important game for Arsenal and I have to forget it’s Montpellier for 90 minutes.”
Abou Diaby vs. Younes Belhanda
The strengths of Arsenal's Abou Diaby are well known. The 26-year-old is trusted with the defensive duties in midfield and is a powerhouse of a player who throws himself into tackles and covers every inch of the pitch like a midfield throwback of old.
The strengths of Younes Belhanda are less known but that is only down to the fact that the 22-year-old Moroccan international is not as well known in the English game as he is in Europe.
Belhanda is the midfield playmaker for Montpellier and, from his position behind the strikers, he tends to drift all over the final third of the field pulling the strings for La Paillade.
He is quick, technically gifted, a superb dribbler and is highly creative with great vision and has made a habit of ghosting into the box un-marked where he can be lethal in the extreme.
Arsenal are favourites for this match but they will have to keep one eye on Belhanda through-out while the young Moroccan will have to be aware of the havoc the surging runs of Diaby can create.
Because of the contrasting styles on offer this will be an extremely intriguing battle.
Per Mertesacker vs. Emmanuel Herrera
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Per Mertesecker has been one of the most influential players at Arsenal so far this season.
The giant German defender has had his fair share of detractors, and is realistically only in the team because of Laurent Koscielny's injury, but he has been nothing less than excellent in Arsenal's first four games.
The Gunners have scored eight and have only conceded one from their opening fixtures and while their goalscoring exploits have captured the imagination, it is the foundation of the Thomas Vermaelan and Mertesacker partnership that is the real reason for Arsenal's good form.
This week they will travel to a Montpellier side that have struggled to reach the heights of last season but they have an Argentinian striker who has the potential to cause mayhem across the Gunners' back line.
Emmanuel Herrera is Montpellier's direct replacement for Olivier Giroud.
As a striker, Girard feels he is reminiscent of Gonzalo Higuain, but the truth is that he is less direct than Giroud and that he is still adapting to the style of play at his new club.
So far this season he has played five Ligue 1 games and has scored two goals but his potential can be seen in the fact that he scored four goals in five preseason friendlies for the club.
What this shows is that Herrera, like Giroud, is struggling slightly under the weight of expectation at his new club.
However, unlike Giroud and Arsenal, Herrera and Montpellier are not expected to qualify from the group stages of the Champions League and that immediately lifts the weight of expectation and immediately makes them very dangerous foes indeed.
Mertesacker will, therefore, have to be on his game to contain the mobile Argentinian.
Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa vs. Lukas Podolski
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The key battle in the Champions League fixture between Arsenal and Montpellier will be between Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Lukas Podolski.
Yanga-Mbiwa, a defender of maturity way beyond his 23 years, is Montpellier's captain and has been ever present for the past five years since making his debut in 2007.
He is comfortable in any position across the back four but is primarily used as a central defender by Girard where his superb mobility, pace, strength and tactical discipline mark him out as a centre-half of some worth.
Over the past couple of seasons he has been linked with the likes of PSG, AC Milan and Arsenal, who failed to sign the youngster this summer.
He will be tasked with keeping both his old teammate, Giroud, and Podolski quiet should they both play but his main emphasis will be on the German striker.
While Giroud is struggling to adapt to life with Arsenal, Podolski has jumped straight into Arsene Wenger's way of thinking and has scored two goals in his first four games for the rampant Gunners.
Like Yanga-Mbiwa, Podolski is extremely adaptable.
He can play in a number of positions across the front line so should the players pair up against each other it will be more than interesting to see if they stay tactically disciplined or if they become involved in a personal battle that could determine the very outcome of this match.
Santi Cazorla vs. Xavi, Iniesta and Pedro
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The match on the pitch will not be the only game players will be concentrating on.
Since moving to Arsenal, for a steal at just £12 million, Santi Cazorla has been immense.
It says much about the Spanish playmaker that after just four games we can say he that is undoubtedly one of the best players in the Premier League.
The midfielder, with 48 caps and eight goals to his name, has never been a complete part of the Spanish set-up due to the phenomenal skills of the players ahead of him, namely Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta.
However, with Hernandez beginning to struggle with injuries and pace issues the time is right for the ex-Malaga man to strike and claim a place in Vicente del Bosque's team.
In October, del Bosque will name his 23-man-squad, of which Cazorla is bound to be a part of, for the upcoming fixtures against Belarus and France.
With Cazorla now playing in the Champions League, and at the highest level of the game, all he needs to do is to continue his early form and make del Bosque think twice about where the Arsenal man can fit in.
Ousting Iniesta and Xavi may seem a bit of a long shot at the moment but replacing Pedro or David Silva in the starting XI is entirely possible.