A promising start to the season for Arsenal received another boost with a favourable draw in the UEFA Champions League group stage.
Whilst I don’t believe it will be quite the stroll many people seem to believe, a group which pits them against Standard Liege of Belgium, AZ Alkmaar of Holland, and Olympiakos of Greece, is certainly a draw that Arsene Wenger would have gleefully accepted beforehand and it will be a major surprise if Arsenal fail to progress.
None of the three sides have much of a pedigree in the tournament—Standard Liege will play in the Champions League Group stage for the first time after twice being eliminated in the qualifiers, AZ Alkmaar will compete in the tournament in its current format for the very first time, while despite regularly making the group stages, the furthest Olympiakos have got is a quarter final in 1998-99.
Standard Liege appear to be the biggest threat with a settled, hard-working side which has upset the balance of power in Belgium, surpassing Anderlecht and Club Brugge as Belgium’s team to beat, having won the title for the past two seasons.
They also pushed Liverpool all the way in last’s season’s Champions League Qualifiers before going out in extra-time but impressively saw off Everton in UEFA Cup.
Despite the loss of their defensive talisman, former Newcastle loanee Oguchi Onyewu, who left the club this summer after five years to join AC Milan, they still possess some very good players including Serbian winger Milan Jovanovic, who regularly attracts Premiership interest and two lively strikers in DR Congo forward Dieumerci Mbokani and the Brazilian-born Igor De Camargo who is now a naturalised Belgian international.
The two jewels in Standard’s crown however are Axel Witsel, an exciting wide midfielder who at just 20-years-old is the current Belgian Player of the Year, and the 21-year-old captain and midfield playmaker Steven Defour.
Defour in particular will play at the highest level one day and has already reportedly been the subject of interest from some of Europe’s biggest guns including Real Madrid, Liverpool and interestingly, Arsenal. His battle against Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas will make an interesting side dish in what should be two good competitive matches.
Whilst Standard should provide the most competition, Olympiakos could be the most intriguing with a side containing five players with experience of English football in Didier Domi (ex-Newcastle and Leeds), Olof Mellberg (ex-Aston Villa), Raul Bravo (ex-Leeds), Enzo Maresca (ex-West Bromwich Albion) and former England Under-21 striker Matt Derbyshire who completed a permanent move to the club from Blackburn Rovers over the summer following a successful loan spell last season.
The fact that they are now managed by ex-Newcastle nutcase Temuri Ketsbaia should also make for some interesting press conferences. A sprinkling of South Americans in fellow Brazilians—combative midfielder Dudu and highly rated young striker Diogo as well as the experienced Argentine winger Luciano Galletti offer quality—coupled with an intimidating home crowd, they should battle Standard for the second qualifying spot.
AZ Alkmaar look to be the underdogs of the group despite an amazing season last year which saw them convincingly win their first Dutch title since 1981, the same year they also lost in the UEFA Cup final to Ipswich Town.
Since last season’s title success however, they have lost the mastermind behind their triumph, manager Louis Van Gaal to Bayern Munich, as well as key player Demy De Zeuw, who has joined Dutch rivals Ajax.
Despite still possessing a trio of Dutch internationals—Kew Jaliens, David Mendes Da Silva and Stijn Schaars—as well as the highly rated forward, Moroccan international Mounir El Hamdaoui, who had a short and unsuccessful spell with Tottenham, Dutch legend Ronald Koeman will have his hands full in making sure AZ have any chance of qualifying for the next stage.