Preview by Numbers: Marseille v. Arsenal, Champions League Group Matchday 1

Stade Velodrome, Marseille
Wednesday, September 18
2:45 p.m. EDT, 19:45 BST
  • Match Officials from Portugal
    • Referee: Olegario Benquerenca
    • Assistants: Ricardo Santos and Rui Tavares
    • 4th Official: Joao Santos
    • Additional Assistants: Artur Soares and Carlos Xistra
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 1 Arsenal win, 1 draw
  • Arsenal's European Form: W-L-L-W // W-W
  • Marseille's European Form: D-W-L-D-L-L
  • Weather: Clear, 22 C / 71 F
Back your bags for the Group
of Death!
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Group of Death! Arsenal find themselves in a similar group to 2011, except this time around Dortmund is much stronger, Marseille is much stronger, and Olympiacos has been replaced by Napoli.

In each of the last two seasons, Arsenal have picked up four of a possible nine points on the road. In 2011, they won all three home games and won the group. Last year, the won two of three home games and finished second. It's obvious in a group as strong as this one that just taking care of business at home will not be enough; you have to steal points on the road to advance. On paper, Arsenal's easiest road fixture in the group is tonight's trip to France.

These look to be a vital three points for Arsenal. Dropping points puts the Gunners behind the eight ball, with trickier fixtures lying ahead for them this fall. A loss would put enormous pressure on their trips to Dortmund and Naples.

But, this is what the Champions League is all about; to be the best, you've got to beat the best. I wouldn't trade this for a trip to FC Glarbinglarp in southern Moldova, and anyone who would is missing the point.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Cazorla (ankle,) Rosicky (thigh,) Sanogo (back,) Podolski (hamstring,) Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee,) Arteta (thigh,) Diaby (knee)

These two have passed fit, so you can stop panicking. A
little. By all means, you can still panic a bit.
The injury list continues to fluctuate wildly. Arsenal lost Santi Cazorla to an ankle injury before the Sunderland match even started and he's expected to be out until the next international break in early October. On the other hand, a number of names are on their way back. Thomas Vermaelen came off the bench to make his first appearance of the season on Saturday, having recovered from a back injury. Per Mertesacker missed the trip to Sunderland through illness but has made the trip to France.

Mesut Ozil was subbed off around 70 minutes as he battled illness (if that was him battling illness and barely knowing the other players in the side, then what is he going to be like once he's comfortable?!) but he is fit for the trip as well. Olivier Giroud left the match late with a knee injury but has been declared fit as well.

Arsenal suddenly have options at the back. Does Vermaelen get a start, giving Mertesacker a break to ease his way back in? Or do you throw the successful Mertesacker-Koscielny axis straight back together?

They most certainly don't have options up front, considering the injuries to Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Lukas Podolski, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Given the personnel available, it looks like it should be Ozil, Theo Walcott, and Giroud as the front three again, as it was Saturday. The midfield three should be the same, then, between Mathieu Flamini (who left Marseille to join Arsenal "treasonously,") Aaron Ramsey, and Jack Wilshere.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs, Flamini, Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil, Walcott, Giroud.

Marseille Squad News

Valbuena's even as tiny as Cazorla, as you can see by this
photograph that ISN'T PHOTOSHOPPED. He's 10 inches
shorter than Fellaini and Kompany and also bent back while
falling, creating an optical illusion.
Marseille are a significantly better side than they were two years ago and strengthened this summer with purchases including Florian Thauvin and Dimitri Payet from Lille. Marseille are strong up front, with Andre-Pierre Gignac operating in front of a dynamic trio of Payet, Andre Ayew, and Mathieu Valbuena. Valbuena is the man to watch, a creative playmaker in the vein of Santi Cazorla.

When they don't have the ball, Marseille are highly organized on defense and drop back into two banks of four, with Ayew and Payet dropping back to cover the fullbacks. Their center backs, Nicolas N'Koulou and Lucas Mendes, are very good at withstanding pressure.

Their manner of winning games last season will sound familiar to you; it was a lot like Arsenal's late season tactics. 12 of Marseille's 21 victories in Ligue 1 last year came by a 1-0 scoreline and 18 of them were by a single goal. Marseille would score the odd goal while defending in a methodically organized fashion. They finished second in the league behind PSG, despite only scoring 42 goals in 38 games. Bordeaux was the only other side to score fewer (40) in the top-10 and you'd have to go to 14th place Reims to find another side that scored fewer (33.)

Current and European Form

Here's Valbuena again, from this weekend, when Marseille
left it late to draw Toulouse. I can't tell how far away the
corner flag is, given Valbuena's height.
Arsenal have won five straight across all competitions for the first time since last spring. Across all competitions and spanning both seasons, Arsenal have lost just once in their last 17 matches. They have also won nine straight games away from home spanning that same period, dating back to the 2-1 loss at White Hart Lane in early March.

Arsenal have won two straight on the road in Europe (Fenerbahce this year and Bayern Munich last year,) dating back to the dead rubber loss at Olympiacos. As mentioned at the top of this preview, in each of the last two seasons, Arsenal have picked up four of a possible nine points in group stage road matches. They'll have to do similar this year and take care of business at home to survive their Group of Death.

Marseille have played five matches this season, all in Ligue 1. They opened the year on a three match winning streak, beating EA Guingamp 3-1, Evian Thonon Gaillard 2-0, and Valenciennes 1-0. They then lost at home to Monaco 2-1 before the international break, then drew Toulouse 1-1 at the weekend. They currently reside fourth in the Ligue 1 table.

Marseille were in the Europa League last year, but finished third in a group stage that included Borussia Monchengladbach, Fenerbahce, and Cypriot side Limassol.

Match Facts

I often forget how much I hated the away kits two years ago.
Arsenal and Marseille have met twice before, in the 2011 group stage of the Champions League. The matches were low scoring, to say the least, with Arsenal winning 1-0 in Marseille and drawing 0-0 at the Emirates. Aaron Ramsey had the 92nd minute winner on October 19, 2011. The next day, Muammar Gaddafi died, adding more credence to the "Aaron Ramsey kills people when he scores goals" theory. That has petered out more recently, now that Ramsey is scoring more often.

The reverse fixture in London ended in a 0-0 draw on November 1, 2011. You might recall that Ju Young Park started that game for Arsenal, getting his big chance after scoring a cracker against Bolton in the Carling Cup two weeks prior. He did nothing with his 62 minutes on the pitch and made only one other start for Arsenal afterwards.

Arsenal are unbeaten in nine previous trips to France, at least against French competition (six wins and three draws.) It should be noted that their 2006 Champions League Final loss to Barcelona, however, was in Paris. Against the French, though, Arsenal have won five straight in France: 2-1 against Montpellier last year, 1-0 against Marseille in 2011, 1-0 over Auxerre in 2002, 1-0 over Lyon in 2001, and 2-1 over Lens in 2000.

Marseille have a record of seven wins, three losses, and one draw against English competition at home. The only other English side to beat Marseille in France was Liverpool, who did it in the group stages in both 2007 and 2008.

The Referee

Remember when Arsenal wanted to sign Suarez this summer?
The crew of match officials is from Portugal; the referee is Olegario Benquerenca. UEFA's press kit mentions that Benquerenca has never worked a match for either of these sides; that is false. Benquerenca was the referee when Arsenal beat Udinese 2-1 in Udine in their 2011 qualifier; the match in which Wojciech Szczesny saved Antonio di Natale's penalty (which was harshly given by Benquerenca.)

His most famous moment came in the 2010 FIFA World Cup quarterfinal between Uruguay and Ghana, when he sent off Luis Suarez for handling Ghana's sure winner off the line. Of course, you'll recall that Ghana missed the ensuing penalty and lost in the shootout.

Benquerenca was at the center of a controversial Champions League match in October 2010 between Auxerre and Ajax in which he showed three red cards, including one to Auxerre's Jean-Pascal Mignot, who was warming up on the sidelines at the time.

Around Europe
  • Tuesday: Manchester United 4 - 2 Bayer Leverkusen
  • Tuesday: Real Sociedad 0 - 2 Shakhtar Donetsk
  • Tuesday: Galatasaray 1 - 6 Real Madrid
  • Tuesday: Copenhagen 1 - 1 Juventus
  • Tuesday: Benfica 2 - 0 Anderlecht
  • Tuesday: Olympiacos 1 - 4 Paris Saint-Germain
  • Tuesday: Bayern Munich 3 - 0 CSKA Moscow
  • Tuesday: Viktoria Plzen 0 - 3 Manchester City
  • Wednesday: Schalke 04 v. Steaua Bucuresti; Veltins-Arena, Gelsenkirchen
  • Wednesday: Chelsea v. Basel; Stamford Bridge, London
  • Wednesday: Napoli v. Borussia Dortmund; Stadio San Paolo, Naples
  • Wednesday: Austria Wien v. Porto; Ernst-Happel-Stadion, Vienna
  • Wednesday: Atletico Madrid v. Zenit Saint Petersburg; Vicente Calderon, Madrid
  • Wednesday: AC Milan v. Celtic; San Siro, Milan
  • Wednesday: Barcelona v. Ajax; Camp Nou, Barcelona