As the legend goes: once upon a time, Arsenal were the kind of club who would travel to Greece and face a team like Olympiakos filled with a certain swagger and just a hint of trepidation. Known for their possession-based football, Arsenal would command a game like this against a so-called lesser opponent by passing the ball around with ease and dominating nearly every statistical category. Thus the swagger.
The trepidation came from the fact that Arsenal had a known Achilles heel; teams like Olympiakos would concede the ground game to Arsenal and try to dominate them in the air. As the football world saw with the defeat to Swansea, however, Arsenal no longer have just one way to be undone: Achilles has been found to have a weakness on more than just his heel and has been stricken on the elbow, forearm, neck, knees, and most worryingly right in the middle of his breastplate.
In the midst of the worst domestic start to a season under Arsene Wenger, and looking to escape the protests and perhaps get healthy, Arsenal face an Olympiakos side that they haven’t beaten in Athens in the last two attempts. An Olympiakos side which will try to hit Arsenal in the traditional weak spot with set plays and counter attacks. An Olympiakos side which took more shots than Arsenal, back when the teams first met in London. And an Olympiakos side which has nothing to lose and will probably just want to entertain the home crowd.
Meanwhile, Arsenal have a chance to finish top of their group and much has been made of securing that place by the pundits (except the cool headed and always rational Barry Glendenning) but as we saw last year in the Champions League, teams can finish first and still draw AC Milan. This year is no different, winning the group could see Arsenal paired with Valencia (or Bayern!), AC Milan, Juventus, Real Madrid, and PSG who are all currently in second place. In fact, I would argue that it doesn’t really matter who Arsenal get in the next round, there are no easy teams left.
That could be the reason Wenger is resting nearly the entire Arsenal first team and has selected just five regulars to take with him to Greece. Wenger will take charge of his 150th European match and will pick XI of the following: Szczesny, Vermaelen, Rosicky, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey, Squillaci, Coquelin, Arshavin, Jenkinson, Gervinho, Chamakh, Angha, Ansah, Hajrovic, Meade, Monteiro, Shea, Akpom.
Many Arsenal fans have been wondering whether Arshavin could be the savior of their season and given the paucity of options Wenger brought with him to Greece I’m guessing they’ll have a chance to find out. Either that or they’ll have a chance to see just how many times Arshavin gives away possession with a cute little flick or a back-heel or something over elaborate which he thinks makes him look like a genius but which is really just something he does out of fear that he will be dispossessed.
Thus, I expect Arsenal to start with Szczesny, Vermaelen, Squillaci, Jenkinson, Meade, Coquelin, Ramsey, Ox, Arshavin, Chamakh, and Gervinho. I also expect that lineup will struggle mightily with Olympiakos, unless they miraculously discover some Greek fire in their belly.
Arsenal has been one of the worst teams in the Champions League in terms of creating chances. They don’t even dominate possession in away games, they are mid-table in terms of shots on goal, tackles, interceptions, and they are dead last in fouls (they don’t even fight). Meanwhile, Olympiakos is a team which should press Arsenal all over the pitch and watch as Arshavin and Ramsey cough the ball up time and again. Unless they just concede the game and choose not to play.
And that’s the real “match preview” here. Arsenal supporters have become accustomed to the roller coaster ride that started last season and not knowing which Arsenal team will show up for any given game. They have become inured to the vagaries of which tactic the opponent will take to try to defeat them – so much so that no one has even mentioned that Arsenal are now being beaten by pretty much every tactic in the book. And they have grown weary of the lackadaisical way in which Arsenal players approach the games one day and the full blooded effort that they give the next.
You really never know what you are going to get in a game like this normally but especially so from Arsenal. The result could be anything from a soporific 0-0 draw to a monstrous 3-0 defeat. But if I were a betting man, which I am, I would put money on some eye-popping scoreline. 4-4? 5-7? Why not, the odds are probably hilarious.
You have to cash in now because the Arsenal legend is just that at the moment, a tale to tell my children. Once upon a time, there was a man named Thierry Henry. He picked the ball up in midfield and with 80,000 Spaniards whistling at him drove through the middle of the pitch at the Santiago Bernabeu, skipped past all XI of their players and scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over the legendary Real Madrid. He had the Greek fire in his belly, little Timmy.