CL Preview: Getting To Know Group H

By on September 15, 2009
uefa_champions_leagueTed Harwood is a regular guest contributor to Arsenal Station. He lives in Chicago, IL, and has been an Arsenal supporter for the better part of a decade. He also writes about movies, music, and other cultural artifacts on his blog, Running Downhill.

Arsenal kick off their 2009-10 UEFA Champions League group stage matches on Wednesday evening with a trip to Standard Liège.  After the events of the weekend, this hop across the Channel could not be more welcome.  One of the benefits of having one’s team in the Champions League is that it allows the players, the fans, and the media to shift focus and recharge the batteries, and after Saturday, it will be good to put the Premier League out of everyones’ minds for a moment.  The group H table presents the players with another fresh slate, and I’m sure they will greet the opportunity to focus on starting their 2009-10 Champions League Group Stage campaign with three points.

With that said, let’s turn our attention to Arsenal’s group H opponents for the coming group stages:

Royal Standard de Liège (Les Rouches)

Arsenal’s first opponents in group H are the defending Belgian champions.  They have won the Belgian top flight ten times since their first win in 1957 and have hoisted the Belgian cup five times.  They have historically not had much success in Europe, featuring in the Champions League or European cup on eleven occasions, but never leaving the group stages.  Nonetheless, they feature a decent record of 23 wins, 5 draws, and 16 losses in those group stages.  Their best European result was losing the 1982 Cup Winners’ Cup final to Barcelona.

Liège play in Le Stade Maurice Dufrasne, which while being small (26,000 for all-seater events), has a fearsome reputation (it’s nicknames are either Hell or The Cauldron, depending on who you talk to).  Arsenal’s trip to Belgium will not be an easy one, but one thing that will help is that Standard’s influential midfield captain Steven Defour is out for three months with an injury.  Even so, forwards Dieumerci Mbokani and Milan Jovanovic will present a threat to Arsenal’s suddenly, shall we say…wobbly…defense.  However, this is the type of match that Arsenal should be winning easily.  Plus, Standard’s manager is Romanian Laszlo Boloni, which (ahem) hopefully sums up Liège’s game on Wednesday.

Alkmaar Zaanstreek (AZ Alkmaar)

AZ represent the biggest threat to Arsenal taking the top spot in group H.  Playing against the reigning Dutch Eredivisie champions is never easy (see Arsenal’s 2006-07 round of 16 exit at the hands of PSV for an example), and AZ played exceptionally well last year, conceding only 22 goals in 34 matches to beat Steve McLaren’s FC Twente to the crown by 11 points.  AZ also became the first team to break the big three’s (Ajax, PSV, and Feyenoord’s) hold on the top spot since 1981, when…AZ did it.  So they are serious.  And it’s not just their defenders that do the dirt; their strike partnership of the Brazilian, Ari, and the Moroccan, Mounir el Hamdaoui (the Eredivisie’s leading scorer last year), present a potent attack as well.  AZ are only 2-1-1 all time in Europe’s top competition, though, so perhaps their lack of experience at this stage will hurt them.

One other factor helping Arsenal’s case vs. AZ this year is the recent departure of manager Louis van Gaal for the towering heights of Bayern (heights he’s not unfamiliar with, having won La Liga with Barcelona a couple of times, among other plaudits).  AZ’s new manager, Ronald Koeman, is no slouch, though, having managed Ajax, PSV, and Valencia in recent years.  One can hope that the new manager will not have had a lot of time to gel with the squad, but by the time October 20th rolls around, that will probably be a moot issue.  AZ appear to be the team in group H to challenge Arsenal for the top spot.

Olympiacos Piraeus (The Reds or The Legend – how great is that?)

Olympiacos are the reigning Greek champions, something they are just a bit used to.  They are the 37-time Greek champions, have won the Greek cup 24 times, and have won the double a shocking 14 times.  They do not have a tremendous European pedigree to match their domestic dominance (what’s beyond dominance?), but they do have experience at this level, having played 108 matches with a slouchy record of 34-25-49 all-time.  Their best finish was in 1998-99, when they reached the last eight in Europe, losing out to Juventus 3-2 on aggregate.

The Reds are likely to deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation, with striker Konstantinos Mitroglou leading the attack.  Olof Mellberg, familiar to Arsenal fans from his eight seasons of work at Aston Villa, plays in the center of defense, behind Argentine journeyman midfielder Cristian Ledesma.  As always in Europe, things may get a little tricky away in the port of Athens, but Arsenal really should have no difficulty taking six points from Olympiacos when all is said and done.

Unlike previous seasons, overall, the draw for Arsenal doesn’t feature a team that has done well in recent European contests.  There is no Sevilla or Inter to deal with this year, and Wenger and the squad will surely be looking to wrap up the top spot in the group.  Finshing second hasn’t necessarily hurt Arsenal in recent times as reaching a final, the quarters, and the semis in three of the past four years is a record most teams in Europe would slobber over. Not to mention that this is our 12th consecutive year in the Group Stage. Still, every advantage must be sought out.

UEFA’s smart, or sheepish, lifting of the ban on Eduardo will make things easier in the group. Though Arsenal aren’t exactly lacking for strikers, with Vela likely to feature in the first team sooner rather than later along with probable heavy doses of Ramsey and Gibbs and maybe a dash of Wilshere and Hoyte.  Gooners should be feeling bullish about Arsenal’s chances in Europe once again.  Bring on Liège. [digg=http://digg.com/soccer/CL_Preview_Getting_To_Know_Group_H]