After enough foreplay to render anyone’s genitals numb for a month, UEFA managed to complete the Champions League group stage draw in Monaco on Thursday. Once again, Arsenal dodged most of the banana skins and look favorites to top their group. Almost equally important, Sp*rs will find it nearly impossible to qualify for the knock out stages.
Arsenal were drawn into group H, along with Shakhtar Donetsk, SC Braga, and Partisan Belgrade. It’s a group that will earn us thousands of sweet, sweet airline miles, but presents a fairly straightforward path into the knockout round. The schedule of the fixtures is important considering the amount of travel required, but as I will discuss, I think the schedule is favorable.
The biggest headline from our Champions League draw is the return of Eduardo to the Emirates on October 19. He’s off to a strong start for Shakhtar and while he could cause us some difficulties, I think everyone will be happy to see him return so soon. The Champions League is becoming something of a homecoming tour for past gunners. Two season ago Pires was warmly welcomed back. Last season Henry returned. Now Eduardo, admittedly a less iconic Arsenal figure, will be playing for the opposition at the Emirates. I expect that he will be received enthusiastically. It’s unfortunate that Eduardo had to leave the club, and the circumstances of his departure were particularly disappointing. While we all wish him well, let’s hope he shows the form that lost him his place at the club during our two matches against his new team.
With respect to the schedule of our group games, I think we should consider ourselves fortunate. The obvious nightmare scenario would be a trip to Donetsk in the Ukraine during the dead of winter. Fortunately, we dodged that bullet. If we’re lucky, the weather might not be too abominable when we visit on the third of November. More importantly, the league match following the long trip to the Ukraine is a very hospitable home fixture against Newcastle. To make life even better, that fixture falls on a Sunday, affording us an extra day of rest and preparation.
We can also be thankful for two other aspects of the schedule. We open the campaign at home against Braga. It’s a chance to get an early win under our belts. Hopefully that can be a spring board to winning the group in advance of the final fixture. That would allow us to play a reserve team on December 8, before a league match at Old Trafford that weekend. If, however, the group is still in doubt on the final day, at least we can look forward to playing at home against a team that should be the weakest in group H. Either way, it’s an advantageous schedule.
We might consider ourselves a little unlucky to be playing at Stamford bridge after a trip to Belgrade. However, Chelsea will have a European fixture as well. Granted, they play at home, but Marseille could cause them some difficulty. More importantly, our match at Belgrade is on a Tuesday and the domestic fixture is on Sunday. That’s sufficient time to be ready. Certainly it could be worse.
After our home match against Shakhtar, we have a tricky domestic fixture at Manchester City. However, that match is also on a Sunday following a Tuesday European date. Again, that’s a very manageable time frame. It’s also worth remembering that City will likely have a match on Thursday against some wacky Europa League team. Preferably an away match against Martian FC. In truth, that schedule could ultimately favor us in the league fixture.
Considering the teams that we could have drawn and the schedule we could be facing, you have to say that we are well positioned. Shakhtar are a strong side, but even if we lose to them on the road, we should have more than enough in our locker to secure the points at home. However, they are currently 6-1-0 in their Premier League, and apparently they have already beaten Arsenal this season. (Stupid Ukrainian Arsenal!) They are champions of Ukraine and have a stunning stadium that should provide excellent home support. If there is a banana skin in the group, it’s clearly Shakhtar.
Braga are interesting. They had to overcome Celtic and Sevilla to earn their place in Thursday’s draw. Those results alone merit some concern. However, last season we played a more impressive Portuguese team in the round of 16, and despite Fabianski’s efforts to gift them the tie, we were far too much for Porto, winning 6-2 on aggregate. If that’s any indication of Braga’s abilities, then we should be in good shape.
Partisan are the minnows of the group and although they were able to scrape past Anderlecht in the playoff, it’s hard to see them troubling us. They have a team of mostly domestic players although Cleo looked like he had something to offer in their playoff. They are newcomers to the competition and therefore something of an unknown quantity. We don’t have a great history against Serbian competition, but I think it’s safe to say that past results have little bearing on this matchup. Overall, we should be playing our reserves for our home match against Partisan at the end of the group stage.
One thing worth observing about these three opponents is that they all play in relatively nice stadia. While I certainly have no idea what to expect from the pitch at any of these venues, the fact that the stadia are all modern, up-scale facilities bodes well. It’s never easy playing at a dilapidated, out-dated stadium where the pitch is nearly unsuitable. Fortunately, it doesn’t look like we’ll be faced with that scenario.
If the draw was kind to Arsenal, then it’s only fair to suggest that it was unkind to Sp*rs. How sad. I will not enjoy watching them get destroyed by Inter, Werder Bremen, and FC Twente. Not one bit. I will certainly not record those games and watch them on rainy days when I’m feeling blue. That would be unsporting of me.
In the midst of all this Champions League madness, Arsene Wenger had a press conference on Thursday. Just don’t tell Arsenal TV Online because they’ve failed to put it on the site once again. However, what I have gleaned from the quotes that have emerged is that Cesc and RVP are back in the team and “available normally.” Arsene does have a way with words. The boss also informed us that Denilson is back in the squad. The sound you hear is crickets. It’s normal.
You have to laugh at our injury situation sometimes. Wenger now says that Nasri is just behind Bendtner in his recovery. Nik is expected back in about three weeks while Nasri is expected to return in three to four weeks. That’s great news because last week he was expected back in three weeks. So by next week he should be just five weeks away from fitness. I expect to see Nasri back in an Arsenal shirt in time to christen our new shirt sponsor “Morbo’s Hovercars.”
Arsene also had a bit of a rant about rugby tactics by teams like Stoke and how keepers aren’t being protected. This seems a rather blatent strategy by the manager to get Chris Foy’s attention. Foy was the referee in the Sp*rs game last week when Gomes was pushed, punched and stomped upon by Ryan Shawcross and his band of Cro-Magnon teammates. Considering that Blackburn tried the same tactics with much success against Fabianski last season, I think Wenger is trying to put pressure on Foy to protect our keeper this time around. (And that keeper will be?)
Finally, Wenger revealed that Squillaci is not available for this weekend. Apparently he hasn’t properly integrated into the side yet. Or maybe Wenger is just waiting until the club announce that he’s been signed. I imagine that should be some time before the transfer window closes … in January. It doesn’t really matter because Koscielny is back in the side and we have our other defender backing him up, Ghosty McGhosterson.
In transfer news, Schwarzer is about to sign for Arsenal. Or being given a medical. Or the deal is dead. Take your pick.
And that’s about all there is for the moment. Blackburn preview later.