Four wins from six Champions League games. Job done. Bring on the next round.
Or so you would think.
However, in Group F, one of Arsenal, Napoli or Borussia Dortmund could find themselves finishing in third place, and exiting the competition, on 12 points. Even Arsenal, who have found that four wins from your first five fixtures still doesn’t even secure you second place.
Such a scenario would occur if Napoli beat Arsenal and Dortmund beat Marseille on Wednesday, leaving Group F on a knife-edge. This has happened partially due to the three sides matching each other in terms of strength and partially due to Marseille conspiring to lose all of their games so far.
However, it does mean that Group F is definitely the one to watch tonight. Here are the permutations and key matchups to look out for.
In all truth, if Arsenal go out on Wednesday night we’ll be talking about this one for years. It would require a meltdown in Naples and another result to go against them for it to happen. If they can secure a better result than a three-goal defeat then they are through, while a single point secures them top spot. They also win the group with a one-goal loss of 4-3 or above, but more on that later.
Dortmund also know what they have to do: win at Marseille and they go through. Napoli also have their fate in their own hands, but they have a far tougher task as they must beat Arsenal by three goals to qualify without needing a favour from Marseille.
UEFA rules state that when teams are level on points, then head-to-head records between the sides in question come into play. This means that—despite being on the same number of points as Dortmund—Napoli must better Dortmund’s result in France in order to overtake them due to an inferior head to head record with the German side.
If Napoli and Dortmund both win, then it gets complicated.
Such a scenario would leave Arsenal, Napoli and Dortmund on 12 points and require a three-way head-to-head comparison. This occurs through comparisons of the three sides' goal differences and then goals scored, when discounting Marseille. As Dortmund are playing Marseille, then their plus-one goal difference in this measure cannot change. Arsenal currently have a plus-two goal difference, while Napoli are minus-3.
If Napoli beat Arsenal by three goals or more then they are guaranteed to be above Arsenal in this ranking and so would be through, while anything less than that guarantees Arsenal to be above Napoli and so puts the English side through.
A one-goal defeat for Arsenal puts them level with Dortmund on the three-way head-to-head. A one-goal loss of 4-3 or above puts Arsenal above Dortmund by virtue of goals scored, with Napoli second, while a one-goal loss with fewer goals puts Dortmund first, Arsenal second and Napoli third. If Napoli win by five goals then they are guaranteed to top the group.
Napoli vs. Arsenal
Rafa Benitez’s Napoli side lost 2-0 at the Emirates in October but were without the injured Gonzalo Higuain. The Argentine striker has scored three goals—all in the same side of the goal—and contributed two assists in his four Champions League appearances this season. This means that he has either scored or assisted 62.5 percent of Napoli’s goals in the competition this season.
However, he comes up against an Arsenal defence in imperious form. Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker successfully shackled Everton’s in-form Romelu Lukaku at the weekend and will not be fearing a matchup with Higuain. The duo have set the foundations for Arsenal’s success this season, and only two defenders have higher defence rankings in Squawka’s Performance Score than Koscielny in this season’s Champions League.
Higuain can, however, take some comfort from the fact that while he has scored all of his goals in the same area of the goal Arsenal have let in two of the three conceded in the same area. The Gunners have also let in more league goals in Higuain’s favoured side of the goal, an area that Wojciech Szczesny may want to keep a close eye on in this clash.
Marseille vs. Borussia Dortmund
On paper this should be an easier game to call than the clash in Naples. Marseille are yet to pick up a point in Europe this season, while Dortmund know that a win will put them through. Further to that, Marseille are currently managerless having dismissed Elie Baup earlier in the week.
However, they face an injury-hit Dortmund side that is down to the bare bones, having lost both Nuri Sahin and Sven Bender at the weekend. With a long injury list that also includes both centre-backs, Dortmund could be vulnerable, and Marseille will be eager to impress their temporary coach.
Roared on by a vociferous home crowd, who will share the team's determination to avoid the ignominy of a zero-point European campaign, Marseille could be dangerous opponents, particularly if they get a good start.
If they are to do so, then Florian Thauvin could be their player to watch. Not without their own injury problems, missing both Andre Ayew and Mathieu Valbuena, Marseille are likely to hand the Frenchman only his second Champions League start.
The 20-year-old was in and out of the side at the start of the season, but has cemented his place in recent weeks. Despite only playing 163 minutes of European competition this season, Thauvin has successfully gone past his man 11 times. This amounts to one successful dribble every 15 minutes and is the spark that could unlock Dortmund’s makeshift defence.
While Dortmund’s defence is makeshift, they do still boast one of the most lethal forwards in world football at the other end. Robert Lewandowski put Marseille to the sword when the sides met in Germany, finishing with two goals, and has scored 11 times in the Bundesliga this season. The Pole could be key to his side's qualification hopes if he can bail out his stand-in team-mates.