Wednesday’s Champions League line-up sees the “Group of Death” in action. A rejuvenated Arsenal take on Marseille, while Napoli and Dortmund look set for a high-octane encounter. Elsewhere Austria Vienna welcome Porto, and Zenit pay a visit to Atletico Madrid.
Olympique de Marseille v. Arsenal FC
Stade Velodrome, Marseille
Marseille have not been particularly impressive of late on the European stage. Last season, the French outfit bowed out from Europa League in the group stages. The team will be hoping to improve on that record — and the quest begins on Wednesday, against Arsenal. Marseille have lost only two home matches in the 2013 calendar year. Diawara is expected to miss the match due to a thigh injury, but otherwise Elie Baup should have no selection troubles.
Meanwhile, Arsenal come into this match with a strong starting XI but few back-up options should anything go awry. Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, and Yaya Sanogo are all sidelined. On the bright side Olivier Giroud and Per Mertesacker have both been declared fit, and new star Mesut Özil is also likely to start after a shining debut over the weekend. And just as importantly, Aaron Ramsey’s impressive brace at Sunderland proves how dangerous the Welsh midfielder has become.
Arsenal hold a remarkable record stretching back to the 2-0 victory at Bayern Munich last March. On Wednesday night against Marseille, the Gunners have a chance to stretch their run to 10 straight away wins. This Arsenal team has sometimes been criticized for showing greater spirit away than at home, but for this match, it will be to their advantage. A flying start could set the tone for Arsenal’s group campaign; it only gets tougher from here on out, as the other two teams in Group F are Serie A runners-up Napoli and Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund.
Marseille are no walk in the park either, but considering the competition, this is Arsenal’s best and surest chance of picking up three points.
Prediction: Marseille 0-1 Arsenal
Players to watch out for: Dimitri Payet (Marseille); Mesut Özil (Arsenal)
SSC Napoli v. Borussia Dortmund
Stadio San Paolo, Naples
Napoli have had a flying start in Serie A, winning three for three in their opening matches. With Champions League-winning manager Rafa Benitez at the helm and playmaker Marek Hamsik scoring four times already this season, Napoli are a force to be reckoned with.
But Benitez has healthy respect for Dortmund as the most in-form team at the moment, and neither side can take anything for granted — neither in this match nor for the group in general. Called the “group of death,” Group F looks to be a tight affair that may end with more than a few surprises for all involved.
Benitez suggested he will make a few changes to the line-up that beat Atalanta 2-0 over the weekend (largely thanks to substitutes Hamsik and Callejon, who provided an assist and a goal respectively). Dortmund, meanwhile, go into the match without Ilkay Gündogan, Sebastian Kehl, and Lukasz Piszczek who are still sidelined. Not that their absence deterred Dortmund any over the weekend, when BVB dispatched Hamburger SV with a 6-2 scoreline. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan continue to delight fans and frustrate journalists’ spelling attempts. The duo have lived up to and beyond expectation, slotting seamlessly into a Dortmund side that many had considered halfway-finished after Götze’s departure.
Both Napoli and Dortmund are dynamic, in-form, top of their respective leagues, and both managers are astute and wary of the opposition. Napoli will have the home advantage, but it is hard to imagine this Dortmund side not getting an away goal.
Prediction: Napoli 2-1 Dortmund
Players to watch out for: Marek Hamsik (Napoli); Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Dortmund)
Atletico Madrid v. FC Zenit
Vincente Calderon, Madrid
Atletico Madrid and Zenit are both strong contenders to progress from this slightly tricky group featuring three seasoned teams and one enthusiastic newcomer. Atletico have opened their domestic campaign with four straight wins to sit atop La Liga with Barcelona. Wednesday night, Diego Simeone’s side look to keep their momentum going as they welcome Zenit to the Vincente Calderon.
Before the match, the two managers engaged in an oblique philosophical scuffle about footballing style. Simeone hoped that his side’s move toward a more “Italian” kind of football will help their transition game and provide an advantage. Meanwhile, Luciano Spalletti insisted that Atletico play in a very typically Spanish manner; Zenit and Russian football, on the other hand, remain something of an unknown element to Europe.
Issues of philosophy aside, both sides are wary but hungry for success. Atletico will miss Diego Costa who is suspended, and Simeone has hinted that Adrian may start alongside Villa instead. On the other side, Anyukov is sidelined for Zenit, and Hulk is also doubtful.
This also marks the Champions League debut of young Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. The 21-year-old was instrumental last season, which saw Courtois win the Zamora while Atletico finished third in the table. He will be one to watch on Wednesday, and it may be a happy debut for the youngster.
Atletico’s home record in European competition is impressive to say the least: 12 wins in their last 13 matches. Zenit, meanwhile, lost four of their five away matches last season, and have never come home from Spain with a win.
Prediction: Atletico 1-0 Zenit
Players to watch out for: Courtois (Atletico); Danny (Zenit)
Austria Vienna v. FC Porto
Franz Horr Stadium, Vienna
Debutants Austria Vienna embark on their first-ever group match against Porto on Wednesday. They are the first Austrian team to get this far in the Champions League since 2005. But the scenes of joy after Vienna defeated Dinamo Zagreb in the final qualifying round, have now faded into sober reality at the challenge they face from here on out.
“Of course we are the underdogs,” Nenad Bjelica said, admitting that his side have a small chance of winning against opponents such as Porto, Atletico, and Zenit. To make things worse, Vienna are suffering from an indifferent domestic form: they are currently 5th in the Austrian Bundesliga, losing 3-2 to Grödig at home on Saturday.
Nevertheless, Vienna are out to give it their best shot and to celebrate their first appearance in the Champions League group stages. Vienna have been successful when they stay organized, building on a strong defense to unleash quick counterattacks to their advantage.
Something of which Paulo Fonseca is well aware. Despite a four-match winning streak that sees them top of the table, the Porto manager is not taking a result against Vienna as given. And it’s true that the challenge of an away match should never be taken lightly. But with their mental preparedness and form, Porto should be assured of at least a share of the spoils from their trip to Austria.
Prediction: Vienna 1-3 Porto
Players to watch out for: Philipp Hosiner (Vienna); Jackson Martinez (Porto)