26 November 2013

Marseille Preview: A kiss of death to the Group of Death

Tonight offers an opportunity to apply a choke-hold to the Group of Death. Sorry to mix my metaphors from title to lead-in, but so it goes. We go in level on points with Napoli and, dare I say it, the more favorable draw as Napoli faces a tenser match at Dortmund, who are three points off and desperately need to win in order to stay alive.
Marseille, winless in the Group to this point, might come in footloose and fancy-free. Playing for nothing affords a certain freedom that might be worrisome for us. With that in mind, it's valuable to have Flamini back, as one of our finest performances of the season came with he and Arteta together—the 2-0 win over Napoli. Facing his former club might even give Flamini a bit more to play for, not that he ever lacks for intensity.

A win, after all, puts us atop the Group with 12 points, forcing Napoli to win as well to stay even. Should we both win, we both advance as Dortmund could only finish as high as 9 points. It would then come down to our final match—a trip to Napoli—to determine who wins the group. I don't much savor the idea, but I do believe, should it come to that, we can take it to Napoli. Should we win along with Dortmund, things get a little more muddled. We'd sit, of course, at 12, with Napoli and Dortmund knotted at nine. The final round would again have us travel to Napoli and Dortmund visit Marseille. It then becomes possible for all three of us to finish at 12 points (if Napoli beat us and Dortmund beat Marseille), and the tie-break, as I understand it, would come to goal-differential excluding matches against Marseille. As bizarre as it sounds, a team could finish with 12 points without advancing to the knock-out stage. So much for Arsène's "10.2 points to advance" theory, eh? Let's keep it simple by beating Marseille and letting the other chips fall where they may.

With all this in mind, here's the line-up I'd like to see. Let's be honest. There's little rotation to be done on defense or at forward, so our only real questions focus on midfield. With Wilshere having played a full 90' versus Southampton, I'd like him rested and for Rosicky to start at center. With him dictating tempo, Cazorla and Özil can roam the flanks. I particularly like Özil from the right; his partnering with Sagna was especially productive against Southampton. Had Ramsey finished that little backheel or if Özil put his own shot past Boruc, he would have put to rest the silly quibbles over his apparent drop in form. As it stands, he and Sagna exchanged 16 passes against Southampton as Sagna offered an outlet either in support or as an overlap. In other words, a productive pairing.

Of course, there's Theo Walcott to consider. He's available but probably far from fully fit, so it would be good to see him come on for Özil in the second half. After all, Theo's only goal of the current campaign did come against Marseille. We still haven't seen Cazorla at his Cazorlian best, but I'm seeing him go for a goal before coming off midway through the second half. He's due for one of his jinky runs across the edge of the box, and I'm counting on him to deliver that goal. There. That's my prediction. Arsenal 2-0 Marseille with goals from Cazorla and Walcott.

Defensively, we should throttle Marseille, who have struggled to score away in the Champions League and may struggle all the more without the injured Andre Ayew, who has scored two of the club's four goals in the competition, or Dmitri Payet, who is second in the club with four goals overall. Without them, it's difficult to see where the goals will come from, but this is no excuse to let our guard down. Setting aside the league cup loss to Chelsea, we've conceded a single goal in our last five matches, keeping four clean sheets while facing three high-octane clubs (Liverpool, Man U, Dortmund). A disciplined, organized effort from the back four will be vital. Florian Thauvin will be one to watch on Marseille's right side; Gibbs will have to be alert to his runs and to his preference for shooting with his left.

That said, though, this is a game we really should seize by the scruff of the neck, and I hope we'll see an early goal to put them on the back foot. As I write, tt's only a few hours to kick-off. What's your prediction: final score and MotM?