When Group B was drawn, it looked like a relatively easy quartet for Arsenal. That may have changed this weekend. Schalke raised eyebrows with a win at Borussia Dortmund, and while there’s a big difference between getting three points from a place you’re used to visiting and winning on the road in Europe, the result gives reason to hope Arsenal, holding a two-point lead atop Group B, don’t pull away. There’s another team in the group capable of knocking off one of Europe’s best. If Huub Stevens can keep his team at the level we saw on Saturday, there may be some drama in Group B.
There’s a chance for one other team to get involved in this race. With Arsenal and Schalke fighting it out over the next two rounds, one of Montpellier or Olympiacos can challenge for second, provided the teams don’t split points over their home-and-home.
Arsenal (England) vs. Schalke (Germany)
Emirates Stadium, London, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
The two favorites to advance out of Group B are moving in different directions as they meet in London. Arsenal is coming off an upset loss at floundering Norwich City, while Schalke took an impressive three points from their derby against defending Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund. If Arsenal are going to drop points at home in group play, Schalke’s in position to claim them.
Regardless of the result, this is likely to be one of the more entertaining games of the week. While most teams visiting the Emirates would play conservatively in deference to Arsenal’s talent, Schalke’s unlikely to do so. This weekend in Dortmund they played as they normally would despite entering the match as an underdog. While it’s possible Huub Stevens will see Arsenal as a step above Dortmund, he’s more likely to play to the strengths of a team that’s scored at least two goals in each of their last six games. Expect to see Schalke’s potent counter-attack, but expect them to live-and-die with it.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, last year’s top scorer in the Bundesliga, will garner the most attention, but Jefferson Farfan possesses enough pace to trouble Andre Santos. Ibrahim Afellay is settling into his attacking midfield role, while Lewis Holtby has already contributed three goals from slightly deeper in the middle. With 19-year-old Julian Draxler due back for the match, Schalke has a number of weapons that could trouble Arsenal.
With Laurent Koscielny due back for Arsenal, defense may not be a problem. Instead, and uncharacteristically, goals could be an issue. Despite the seamless integration of Santi Cazorla into their midfield, Arsenal has nobody that’s consistently scoring goals. Gervinho is their most prolific league scorer, but he only has three goals in eight league matches. While the Gunners’ defense as allowed the fewest goals in the Premier League, seven clubs have outscored them.
Given Schalke’s defense is also much-improved, we may be in store for a low scoring game, even if the team’s styles lend themselves to more goals.
From Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger:
“We got over [Saturday’s defeat at Norwich City FC]. I expect us to respond in a strong way, because this team is very ambitious and wants to do well.”
From Schalke head coach Huub Stevens:
” If we can play against 80,000 in Dortmund then I think we can play here as well.”
Montpellier (France) vs. Olympiacos (Greece)
La Mosson, Montpellier, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Rene Girard seems to realize Montpellier’s place, conceding the Greek champions are probably favorites going into their Wednesday match. Even though MHSC is only five months removed from claiming Ligue 1, Girard’s is now a completely different team. After Saturday’s loss at Stade Rennes, the defending champions sit 16th in France.
Olympiacos’s domestic fortunes have gone in the other direction. Though they won the Greek Super League last year, they have come back even stronger this season. Through seven rounds, the club is perfect, having scored 18 goals while allowing only three.
The surge has been led by Rafik Djebbour. Last season, the 28-year-old attacker scored 12 goals in 21 appearances. This season, he’s already scored eight in six, including twice this weekend as Olympiacos extended their Super League winning streak to eight games.
That success hasn’t carried over into Europe. With no points through two rounds, Olympiacos sits last in Group B ahead of their match at La Mosson. With games against Schalke and Arsenal to close group play, the Greeks need to take advantage of Montpellier’s struggles if their European aspirations go beyond Europa League.
From Montpellier head coach René Girard:
“I do not think we are favorites. When you look at the European pedigree of both teams it is clear that Olympiacos are.”
From Olympiacos head coach Leonardo Jardim:
“For us and for Montpellier, it is a huge game. We are pleased with our performances but we need a result, so tomorrow we want to get one.”