If there was ever a day to take an extended lunch break or come down with a bit of the afternoon flu, today is it.
Arsenal v. Borussia Dortmund, which has to be the most irresistible Champions League fixture so far this season.
Both sides play incredible football – Arsenal with their intelligent, calculated build-up play and Dortmund with their high octane counter-attacking flair – meaning individual player match-ups will be crucial to determining the outcome.
Here are three key battles to keep a close eye on.
Robert Lewandowski v. Laurent Koscielny
Dortmund are a side that take their chances and no player personifies this better than Robert Lewandowski. Give him an inch and he’ll punish you.
Although marking the Polish international will be a joint effort between Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, it’s the latter who more often than not will be marking Lewandowski. Koscielny’s speed and competitiveness will serve him well in this matchup but if the Frenchman is to prevail he’ll need to focus on keeping Lewandowski within an arms length and with his back to goal.
There’s no denying Kosicielny’s improvement since arriving at Arsenal – many now consider him to be one of the better centerbacks in the Premier League – but his downfall continues to be the over-marking of his man. This results in Koscielny getting spun and being forced into a desperate sliding tackle, which too often means a penalty for the opposition.
Lewandowski, in turn, will look to post and spin Koscielny and to engage the Frenchman in battles of skill that will serve to frustrate. For the Dortmund striker, success in this matchup will be about holding his patience and baiting Koscielny at every possible opportunity.
Mikel Arteta v. Henrikh Mkhitaryan
With Mathieu Flamini ruled out of the match through concussion, Mikel Arteta will be the defensive grit in Arsenal’s holding midfield pair.
Arteta’s main task will be to contain Dortmund’s new weapon, Armenian international Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who loves to run. Snuffing out counter-attacks before they have the chance to develop will be crucial for Arsenal and this means Arteta never getting caught in front of Mkhitaryan.
In addition to his work rate, the Dortmund playmaker is creative and technical but can be frustrated through tough marking. Arteta will do well to breathe down his neck at all opportunities and force him to forgo the killer pass into Lewadowski, Marco Reus and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
For Mkhitaryan to prevail, he must use his pace and imagination to his advantage. Interchanging with Reus and Aubameyang will give Arteta headaches and Mkhitaryan must test the Spaniard’s resolve by running at him off the dribble.
Mesut Ozil v. Nuri Sahin
The onus of containing the fabulous Mesut Ozil falls on Sven Bender, Dortmund’s defensive stallwart who holds BVB’s midfield together allowing the front five to attack.
Bender is a defensive midfielder of technique and intelligence, one who focuses more on intercepting the ball than destroying his adversaries with crunching tackles. He loves to sit in a deep, central position and mark players out of the game. This will be Bender’s plan for Ozil – dominate the space in front of the back four.
Not having to worry about broken ankles will please Ozil but Bender’s constant shadow in the center of the park could serve to annoy. Ozil will counter this approach by flairing out wide to create space for players like Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey – and even Olivier Giroud – to operate centrally. Ozil’s objective thereafter will be to slip deeper into the Dortmund defense, behind Bender, and to operate on the shoulders of Nevan Subotic and Mats Hummels.
Like Mkhitaryan, Ozil must also test Bender’s pace and resolve by running at him off the dribble and linking up with Giroud to slip through the Dortmund defense. With the Bender returning from injury, this is a battle Ozil should be chomping at the bit to dominate.
For more on Arsenal v. Dortmund and all of today’s games make sure to checkout Richard Farley’s impressive Champions League preview.