Arsenal travel to Dortmund this evening for the opening game in this year’s Champions League campaign. It was so tempting to put ‘already doomed’ in that sentence – it really was. I am not ambivalent toward the competition, I just don’t have any expectations beyond the group stage. I guess I could be excited by the prospect of the next six matches and with four of them against teams we haven’t played for a while, it will make some kind of change.
That familiarity is something UEFA must guard against. At some point before the end of this decade, I expect the competition to morph into a full league of two divisions with some sort of play-off system once the fixtures are completed. A European league is on its way, a case of when not if.
But that is then, this is now and Arsenal have plenty to ponder ahead of tonight’s game. Neither side has been convincing in their respective leagues this season although Dortmund have responded to their opening day defeat at home to Leverkusen with consecutive wins that have lifted them to fourth. Neither Augsburg or Freiburg are frightening opponents to face but a winning mentality builds from such victories.
Arsenal are undefeated with just one win to their name; which side is in better shape? It’s all relative I guess but fair to say both can play a lot better. The absences of Reus and Hummels are significant but Dortmund have experienced replacements so despite the bookies making Arsenal favourites, it is not a match where just turning up will bring victory.
In many respects, the tough start is good. The fixtures going into the international break are tough so maintains performance levels seems easier if you know that each opponent is a good side. Villa’s win at Anfield means they cannot be taken lightly which will keep the concentration levels up.
Arsenal go into the match off the back of a good performance and should take heart from Saturday’s point against City. There were lessons to learn but plenty of positives as well, particularly how quickly Welbeck slotted into the side, providing plenty of pace and movement for the midfielders to supply.
It’s a point Jurgen Klopp highlighted yesterday, followed by a nod and a wink; a knowing look of trying to neutralise that aspect of Arsenal’s attacking play. It’s the one area of the team I would not expect changes tonight. Özil has been rightly criticised for his sub-par performance at the weekend. Even so, in his homeland, the German midfielder will have plenty of motivation to play well. I just hope he doesn’t try too hard, manifesting in a repeat of the Bayern match last season.
Elsewhere, I hope Arsène does ring some changes. Restoring Mikel Arteta to the line-up in place of Mathieu Flamini is key change for me, the Frenchman was ineffective against City at the weekend. Wenger’s other options are limited. Either Chambers or Bellerin is going to deputise for Debuchy whilst Gibbs is in for Monreal. Those three will be the extent of the changes, any more will be too disruptive to the XI.
Much of the past twenty-four hours has been taken up with – recriminations is too strong a word – misgivings about the summer where a lack of investment casts a shadow over the back four. To be honest, I am not gong to worry about it; there’s no solution until January at the earliest and no excuses that Arsène can offer which will change the situation.
It’s a problem that existed twelve months ago and didn’t rear its head so he has chosen to run the risk again. Like then, he is now one injury away from a problem which, if not of his making, he certainly has significantly contributed toward. Maybe the youngsters are good enough but it feels as if it will be an unforgiving environment for the manager to work in should that situation arise.
It’s important Arsenal avoid defeat tonight. Despite being unbeaten, Arsène alluded to an issue with self-belief in the squad. A good performance at the weekend is something to build on, a defeat may well puncture that feelgood factor. It’s a common theme in recent years as successive Arsenal squads have struggled to recover their confidence following defeat in big matches which they ill afford at the moment.
And the signs are good. Arsène often talks of resilience, his squad have shown that this season, digging deep from poor performances to get a result, almost building to Saturday slowly. Now they have found that level, Ramsey and Özil finding form would take them to the next level. Tonight’s as good a time as any for that to happen.
FROM THE VAULTS
The two clubs met for the first time in July 1969 where they shared the spoils in a 2 – 2 draw. Nine years later, Liam Brady saw red close to the end of Arsenal’s victory and missed the trip to Maine Road as a result – Graham Rix got the only goal as the expansive Daily Mirror match report below shows – but the maiden competitive fixture had to wait until the 21st Century, a Champions League encounter at Highbury.
This, then, the real thing from 2002. An interesting snippet was Wenger’s view on UEFA’s plan to remove the group stage from Phase 2 of the competition, turning it instead into a knockout tournament. Little did he imagine that there would be little interest from the British viewing public anyway with Sky showing the lions share of the match. It was a quick introduction for him into the murky world of Champions League politics.
All this and a transportable headline, one that could still be used today.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.