Tonight is – if you believe Joel Campbell – the biggest game of the season so far for Arsenal. I get that, especially given that our Champions League future hinges on a 2-0 win or better score line, but whilst it might be important ‘to date’, I don’t think we’ll look back on it as the most important game of the season.
Perhaps that’s because I’m emotionally putting up the blockades for a possible exit tonight, readying myself for media lockdown tomorrow, as well as a post match ‘well, we can focus on the league now’ response to disappointment in Athens. But I do also wonder if the apathy that seems to have enveloped lots of Arsenal fans this season, is also playing a part in my ‘meh’ attitude.
Of course I want Arsenal to go through. I want to see them pull a Champions League rabbit out of a hat and qualify despite being bottom of the group since the beginning of this stage. But with ‘glorious failure’ becoming our thing in this competition, you do kind of wonder if we’re going to do it again in Athens, this time to opponents who you can hardly say have European pedigree in the competition.
Perhaps that’s where the biggest hope lies of all. Our ‘glorious failure’ has so far come at the hands of Milan, Bayern twice and Momaco last season. Monaco were the most beatable, but they had an inspirational Kondogbia on matchday one, so perhaps you can see why they managed to give us a tough time. This Olympiakos team don’t have one stand out player, but they do have a hard working team that profited from some abysmal ‘keeping and defending on the night.
Did we underestimate them at home? Absolutely. They threw bodies on the line that night and took the chances they got. They deserve to be in pole position because they’ve performed well in games against Zagreb and us on our own patch. But we should have enough to beat them by two goals tonight, regardless of what injuries we have or who is practically walking on one leg at the moment.
Arsène will – I expect – pick the same team as the weekend. It’s the right thing to do as well. We have very little options, that much is true, but even where decisions need to be made like Theo or Giroud up top, sticking with Saturday’s line up is the best option. In an attacking sense, I don’t think we’ll see Olympiakos push too many bodies forward and despite the fact it’s a Champions League game, I don’t think we’ll see Theo get much space to run in behind. So Giroud has to start and he has to have willing runners around him like The Ox, Campbell and importantly, Ramsey from the central midfield position. We saw in the dying embers of the game at the weekend, exactly what Ramsey will bring in terms of positioning and so having somebody like that getting in to those positions to support the HFB will be essential tonight and in the coming weeks.
The role of Flamini will also be important here too. With Ramsey acting as the engine in getting forward and backwards more than any other player, Flamini’s discipline will be more important than ever. He must protect the back four, but he also needs to be better in distribution, because if Olympiakos are sitting deep it’s likely that he’ll see more of the ball around the centre spot. With Arsenal’s tiki-taka style, the ball is going to come to him quite a lot as we probe from side-to-side and he won’t have Cazorla in close proximity to release the ball too, so he needs to get better at finding the wide players and not having possession broken down at his expense.
Perhaps what we’ll therefore see, will be Özil taking up positions where he can collect the ball from theFlamster, then distributing from a deeper-lying position. It will be interesting to see what we do in that regard, because I still think Özil can find those pockets of space for players to run in to, even from a deeper-set midfield position.
As with all things, we need to get the balance right and having only played as a unit against Sunderland on Saturday, it will take time. But tonight is a good opportunity to get to know each other and develop those automatisms that Big Per has previously spoken of, with the prize of qualification and a big confidence boost waiting at the end of the 90 minutes.
I haven’t really spoken that much about the opposition, but that’s mainly because I know little about them, but also I believe that if we play to our potential then it shouldn’t really matter what Olympiakos do. But therein lies the challenge: play to our full potential. That’s what needs to happen and that’s where the grey area lies. We’ve seen United get knocked out last night, so the possibility of us suffering the same fate is equally as real.
Fingers crossed we get the result we need tonight.