In a hugely impressive run of emerging from the Champions League first group phase for 13 consecutive seasons, Arsenal have not always had the toughest draw to negotiate. That is certainly not an accusation that can be leveled at them this time around.
In fact, Arsenal’s section quickly, and justifiably, earned the predictable “group of death” tag as they were joined by last season’s Champions League runners-up Borussia Dortmund, a Napoli side with a manager who has three European trophies to his name and last season’s Ligue 1 runners-up Marseille.
In that mix, it is the side from the south of France that have been derided as the also-rans in what promises to be a hotly contested battle to make it to the knockout stages. But Arsene Wenger believes that Marseille, which Arsenal visit on Wednesday to begin their campaign, will be a real threat.
“People say that Dortmund and Napoli are our first opponents but I think that Marseille will have their chance,” he said, according to Arsenal.com. “A couple of years ago there was a similar group but it was Marseille and Arsenal who qualified. Nothing is played yet and they have an opportunity to qualify.”
Arsenal have been boosted ahead of the trip with the news that Mesut Ozil, Olivier Giroud and Per Mertesacker have been passed fit. The £42.5 million signing of Ozil on transfer deadline-day broke with Arsenal’s recent trend of trading at a lower end of the market as they were forced to watch other teams fight it out for the biggest talent. Wenger sees plenty of similarities with the prudence his club employed and how Wednesday’s opponents have been unable to compete with their big-spending French rivals Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco.
“In the framework of the financial hierarchy, Marseille are in the same situation I was in with Arsenal several years ago,” he explained, according to UEFA.com. “They will take players who are not bought by Monaco or PSG. Of course, they have to rely on the future and this is a very intelligent technique. It will be fruitful.”
Adding to already-present France internationals like Mathieu Valbuena and Andre-Pierre Gignac, Marseille have continued the trend of trying to recruit the best domestic talent this summer. That has included the signings of Gianelli Imbula, Dimitri Payet and latterly Under-20-World-Cup-winning winger Florian Thauvin.
Marseille began the season with three wins, before suffering a defeat to Monaco and coming away with a draw from Saturday’s trip to Toulouse. Manager Elie Baup accepts his side are underdogs for the visit of Arsenal, but believes that they are hungry to make a mark in the Champions League.
“We are building a young side,” he said, according to UEFA.com. “These Champions League games are a means of progress and learning for our young and experienced players. We want to achieve something. It will have to be a collective effort.”
Marseille will have Ghanaian forward Andre Ayew available after his suspension at the weekend. Defender Souleymane Diawara returned to training on Tuesday after injury, but may not be fit to start.
D: Fanni, N’Koulou, Mendes, Morel
M: Imbula, Romao
Payet, Valbuena, Ayew
D: Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs
M: Flamini, Ramsey
Walcott, Ozil, Wilshere
Prediction: This will certainly not be an easy opener for Arsenal, but, given the toughness of the matches that await, it is a game that they will be loathed to lose. Crucial to stopping Marseille will be for Mathieu Flamini to do a disciplined job on restricting the influence of underrated playmaker Valbuena. Going forward, the absence of the likes of Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski will likely again necessitate Jack Wilshere being pushed into an uncomfortable more advanced role. Still, with Ozil and the in-form Giroud, Arsenal should just have enough to claim a potentially priceless away win.
Marseille 1-2 Arsenal
Where to watch: The Champions League Group F match will kick-off at 2.45 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by Fox Soccer Plus, with a live stream available on Fox Soccer 2Go.