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Will Arsenal make it through the group stage?
Breaking down the Gunners' Champions League opponents, and thoughts on other groups
Arsenal are finally back in the Champions League!
Thursday’s Champions League group stage provided all the drama that can be expected from small, plastic screwtop balls stuffed with folded sheets of paper, and Arsenal were sent to Group B along with Sevilla, PSV and RC Lens.
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As the day ends, we’re just under three weeks from Arsenal’s first Champions League game in seven years, which will be on either September 19 or 20.
But generally speaking, what can we expect from Group B? What will work in Arsenal’s favor, or against them, with these sides? Let’s break it down.
Pot 1 opponent: Sevilla FC
Manager: Jose Luis Mendilibar
Last season finish: 12th in La Liga
Key players: Youssef En-Nesyri, Lucas Ocampos, Suso, Ivan Rakitic
Key additions: Djibril Sow, Loic Bade
Key losses: Bono
Preferred formation: 4-2-3-1
Notes: Sevilla are in the Champions League via a Europa League run that saw them unseat Manchester United, among others. Despite this, Sevilla are on paper one of the weaker sides in Pot 1, if not the weakest. Mendilibar’s men played pretty well in the Super Cup against Manchester City, but have faded to start the La Liga season, with a 2-1 home loss to Valencia, a 4-3 loss at Alaves and a 2-1 loss to Girona. None of these clubs are particularly strong.
Players to watch will include Youssef En-Nesyri, a striker who is very strong getting on the end of balls in the air. I’d favor Gabriel and William Saliba in that battle, though he’ll give them some work to do. Lucas Ocampos is an attacking livewire who should provide a challenge for Benjamin White or Thomas Partey, whichever plays right back. Of course, both of these are “if he’s still around,” since Ocampos has been linked to Fulham and En-Nesyri to West Ham.
The loss of Bono in goal is massive for Sevilla, and as you can see they’ve had some difficulties keeping the ball out of their own goal. In an unfortunate twist, their attack has also struggled to get off the ground early on, with them bottom five for chances created at present. Here’s how they lined up most recently:
Pot 3 opponent: PSV Eindhoven
Manager: Peter Bosz
Last season finish: 2nd in the Eredivisie
Key players: Luuk de Jong, Johan Bakayoko, Ibrahim Sangare, Joey Veerman, Olivier Boscagli
Key additions: Jerdy Schouten, Noa Lang, Sergino Dest, Ricardo Pepi
Key losses: Xavi Simons, Erick Gutierrez
Preferred formation: 4-3-3
Notes: Arsenal are reunited with PSV, one of their Group Stage opponent’s in last season’s Europa League. The name is the same, but much as changed in Eindhoven. Ruud van Nistelroy has been replaced at manager by Peter Bosz, Kai Havertz’s old manager at Bayer Leverkusen. Bosz has his side playing a high-flying 4-3-3 to start off the season, and they put it to good use in the qualifiers by blasting Rangers 5-1 in the second leg of their playoff.
Xavi Simons was a major eye-catcher for many last season, but he’s gone now, having returned to PSG and then loaned to RB Leipzig. He’s been replaced Ismael Saibari, another young (22) and active attacking midfielder. Joey Veerman is a wonderful midfielder in the Ødegaard mold and will keep things ticking.
The HUGE elephant in the room for PSV is the future of two of their most important players. As things stand, right winger Johan Bakayoko is on the verge of a move to Brentford, and defensive midfielder Ibrahim Sangaré, once considered a successor possibility for Thomas Partey, is being chased by Nottingham Forest. Losing those two would massively impact PSV’s chances of getting through the group.
Here’s how PSV lined up in their last qualifier against Rangers:
Pot 4 opponent: RC Lens
Manager: Franck Haise
Last season finish: 2nd in Ligue 1
Key players: Florian Sotoca, Salis Abdul Samed, Adrien Thomasson, Facundo Medina
Key additions: Elye Wahi, Angelo Fulgini, Andy Diouf
Key losses: Jean Onana, Seko Fofana, Lois Openda
Preferred formation: 3-4-2-1
Notes: Similar to PSV, RC Lens are a club in transition. After making the Champions League on the heels of a great campaign, they lost Seko Fofana and Lois Openda to richer clubs. Those two represent 63 league starts and 37 goal contributions between them.
Franck Heise’s side will be ok with ceding large amounts of possession to the Gunners, with Kevin Danso (who nearly moved to Napoli) anchoring their back three in defense. Lens allowed the fewest goals in France last season but were third-from-bottom in xG allowed. Arsenal will not get a huge number of chances to score if Haise’s gameplan goes as expected, so they’ll need to take advantage.
From an attacking perspective, Lens replaced Openda with Elye Wahi, who’s got the speed to run in behind Arsenal’s high line. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see some moments of fear come via his running in the two matches. Two of my other favorites are Facundo Medina, a good ball-playing LCB, and Salis Abdul Samed, a rising young defensive midfielder. Andy Diouf will bear a heavy burden this season attempting to replace Fofana’s output, but I do like Angelo Fulgini, a very creative if not terribly athletic attacker whose dribbling and passing can make him a pain.
Here’s how Lens lined up recently against PSG:
In what’s sure to be a new entry into “famous last words,” this is a draw to feel good about. Sevilla always have an element of devil magic about their European play, so they’re my current favorite to take second in this group, with Arsenal favored to win. PSV in particular will have some tough personnel decisions to make, and Lens need to bed in new players. One thing’s for sure: I cannot wait to get started.
What about the other groups? Some general thoughts below on what to look out for, A through H:
Group F is an absolute nightmare. As if PSG and Dortmund wasn’t hard enough, arguably the top clubs in pots 3 and 4 (AC Milan and Newcastle) were also drawn in. PSG are in something of a state of transition, with Neymar and Messi gone and newer, younger players in, so it’s hard to know where they’ll end up. Similar for Dortmund. There’s a chance to me that Newcastle and Milan, whose summer has been very good, could end up atop a very tight group.
Manchester United have no excuse to not get through Group A. Yes, Bayern are formidable, but one opponent from Turkey and one from Denmark is manageable to say the least. That said, Galatasaray are experts at making games messy and stealing points, and they’ve added exciting new talent this season.
Group C will be fun. Napoli-Union Berlin is a matchup of opposites, and Real Madrid-Napoli should be box office. Braga barely made the group stage and while they may nip a point here or there, I think their chances are remote.
Group D will be boring, but could end up close. I expect Inter to get through pretty easily here, with Benfica second, but Real Sociedad and RB Salzburg are not opponents to be taken lately. Each has performed on a bigger stage before. Plus, Kieran Tierney!
Group E is wide open. I think just about everyone would have been happy with Feyenoord, who are very good but at an Eredivisie level. Atletico Madrid will either boss this group or let everyone hang around for six weeks and sneak through/just miss. Celtic are probably too far off the pace here, but I could see Lazio making it out, even without Sergej Milinkovic-Savic around any longer.
City may come away from Group G with 18 points and 25+ goals scored. Their games in Serbia and Switzerland should offer a chance for some of their less-used players to shine, and RB Leipzig are no match, particularly without Josko Gvardiol (now at City!), Dominik Szoboszlai and Christopher Nkunku. That said, I did/do love their summer. Simons/Šeško/Carvalho/Openda/Seiwald/Baumgartner could bag some goals in this group en route to second.
Group H should be pretty easy for Barcelona. Porto are a solid step above Shakhtar and Antwerp, but they’re also a good ways off Barca. That said, expect Porto’s Alan Varela to be one of the darlings of the group stage. He just came over from Argentina and at 22, he’s one to watch. Also fun: Barca’s former midfielder Nico Gonzalez is now at Porto.