Arsenal could secure a place in the Round of 16 of the Champions League with a game to spare if they claim victory over Marseille at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday. It would be some accomplishment, on a par with their run at the top of the Premier League, if Arsene Wenger’s side could navigate their way out of what is comfortably the toughest of this season’s groups and arguably the most difficult Arsenal have ever faced.
With their most impressive performance of the season, Arsenal won in Borussia Dortmund three weeks ago, meaning that a win over Marseille coupled with anything other than a victory for Dortmund at home to second-placed Napoli would send the Gunners into the knockout phase. There is every reason to believe that Arsenal will fulfill their part of the bargain.
Arsenal got their Champions league campaign off to a flying start with a precious away win in Marseille and, while the Londoners have gone from strength to strength, Marseille have proved to be the whipping boys of Group F. Indeed, the Ligue 1 side have yet to pick up a single point. Still, Arsenal’s task promises to be somewhat tougher than it might have been a few weeks ago.
Marseille’s season appeared on the verge of collapse when they lost six of seven matches in all competitions, including going down 3-0 at Borussia Dortmund. Yet, the pressure has been eased on manager Elie Baup in recent weeks, with his side recording back-to-back wins to move up to fourth in Ligue 1.
Their star man, Mathieu Valbuena should be on a high too, having been unexpectedly thrown into the France side for their do-or-die World Cup playoff second leg and playing a part in a joyous victory. As well as the diminutive schemer, Arsenal will also have to keep a close watch on Florian Thauvin. The winger, who starred in France’s Under-20 World Cup triumph, was the source of an acrimonious transfer from Lille this summer. In recent matches he has shown why Marseille were so desperate to pry him away from a club for whom he never made a single appearance, netting four goals and added two assists in his last five outings.
Thauvin was particularly impressive in Napoli at the start of the month when Marseille came close to upsetting the Italian side’s hopes for a place in the last 16 before succumbing to a 3-2 defeat. Yet, with Thauvin’s fellow winger Dimitri Payet and forward Andre Ayew out, it remains a tough ask for Marseille to frustrate their opponents at the Emirates.
There is also every reason to think, too, that Arsenal will avoid the kind of slipup that will undo much of their previous good work in the group. This season the Gunners have showed a greater ability to emerge with a positive result even when they may not be at their best. That necessary trait was in evidence on Saturday when Arsenal did just enough to see off the challenge of high-flying Southampton.
The contest at the Emirates also provided another boost with the return from injury of Theo Walcott. The winger, who opened the scoring when the sides met in France, now provides a change of pace and extra width to add to Arsenal’s attacking midfield three, which has on occasion been squeezed out of effectiveness in recent weeks.
With Per Mertesacker likely to be able to keep the physical but limited Andre-Pierre Gignac quiet, Arsenal should secure a victory that place them at least within touching distance of the most impressive of their 14 qualifications from the Champions League group phase.
Prediction: Arsenal 2-0 Marseille
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.