Welcome back. It’s time to turn our attention to Europe, as the Champions League group stages get under way tomorrow and we travel to Croatia to take on Dinamo Zagreb on Wednesday evening.
The last time we played Zagreb was, believe it or not, nine years ago now and we ran out 5-1 winners on aggregate, in a Champions League playoff tie at the start of the 2006-2007 season.
It doesn’t seem nearly as long ago as that and I vividly remember being at the second-leg for what was our first-ever continental encounter at a newly-opened Emirates stadium. Time hasn’t so much flown by in my mind, as it’s been eaten up in one frightening gulp like Frank Lampard devouring a pizza.
Anyway, Arsene Wenger has been speaking about the importance of starting well in a group which includes Bayern Munich, suggesting a win would prove his team have the desire to do well in all competitions this campaign. He said:
It is important we go to Zagreb highly focused and conscious at what is at stake there. You can be quickly out of the Champions League and we want to start well and we know we have a battle first to qualify with Bayern Munich [in the group]. You need to find the balance between urgency and confidence and at times that is difficult as you can quickly be too confident and lose your urgency. We have Olympiacos and Zagreb first and we have to finish above them and the result will come down to that. I think it is important to start well because the hunger of a team is shown as well in how well you go in every competition.
Although the Bayern Munich games will no doubt be very testing, and we’ll go into them as underdogs in the opinion of most people, the fact remains that four very achievable wins out of four against Zagreb and Olympiacos, should see us safely through to the last 16, regardless of how we fare against the Germans.
So in that context, beating the Croatians on Wednesday night would be a massive step towards progression, even on Day 1 of the competition. And Nacho Monreal has also highlighted the fact that the Gunners must hit the ground running, saying:
You don’t play too many games so if you make a mistake you pay for it. You have to be really focused in each game and the level is higher. The difference is small but we have to be really focused. In every single game there is a lot of pressure [especially] when you play away, but we are accustomed to this so in this case it is more psychological than it is physical. It won’t affect us. We want to pass through into the next stage and we know that the favourite is probably Bayern Munich so we can’t lose against Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiacos as well. It would be really positive for us to start with three points as we will have more confidence in ourselves and it is the best way to start.
As we embark on a daunting run of four consecutive away fixtures, spread across three different competitions, Theo Walcott says it’s an ideal opportunity to prove the squad has the required depth of quality and highlights quick physical recovery after each game as being key:
We’ve got a tough four away games now but this is going to test the squad to its full ability, I’m sure. It’s always great to start the Champions League – it’s when everyone starts to get even fitter and sharper. We’re competing in the Premier League, the best league, and in the Champions League against the best players in the world. We’re going to improve and we need to have a good solid start. Away from home, it’s always difficult to play your first game but I think it will do us a favour to be honest. Everyone just needs to recover well.
As Theo suggests here, rotation will no doubt play a crucial role in this upcoming period of games and the hope is that those who’ve barely played any minutes so far this season – the likes of Debuchy, Gibbs, Chambers, Arteta, Flamini, Campbell etc – are all sufficiently focused and prepared to come in and perform if and when called upon.
Up front, keeping Theo and Giroud fit is also vial of course, given they can handily cover for one another as well as offer very different options at the tip of the attack, and particularly as Danny Welbeck is out for the foreseeable.
The boss should hold his pre-match press conference tomorrow and we might get more of an idea on who might play/be rested etc when we get the latest injury updates. One piece of news floating around today is that after 18 days out with a chest infection, Per Mertesacker won’t be included in the group travelling to Croatia.