15 September 2015

From Dinamo and beyond, the dominos shall fall...

For once, we've escaped a Group of Death, having drawn Bayern (who else?), Olympiacos, and Dinamo Zagreb. The former two are old friends, of course, but we haven't squared off against Zagreb since 2006-07, when we thrashed them by a 5-1 aggregate in the Champions League playoff (and first-ever win at the new Emirates Stadium!). That would be the season in which a certain Eduardo da Silva would entice us enough to sign him the following summer—among other exploits, he did score the Blues' one goal against at the Emirates in the second leg. Ah, Eduardo. We hardly knew ye. Somewhere in there is some symbolism: last weekend, we saw off Stoke, breakers of Ramsey's leg, and will face the Blues this coming weekend. 'Twixt the two, we'll face a Blues club that sold us a player whose leg would be broken. A defter wielder of words than I could forge something from that. Enough. On to the preview...

Of the clubs we could have drawn, Dinamo Zagreb fall somewhere in the middle. Not as tough as, say, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Wolfsburg, Maccabi Tel Aviv, or Gent; not quite as soft as Malmö FF, BATE Borisov, or Astana. Then again, we're getting into some serious apples-to-oranges comparisons. In other words, who's to know which among these squads will rise up to pull off a surprise or two? It's up to us to ensure that it won't be Dinamo.

Yes, they've been on their own "Invincibles" run, having stormed through Croatia's Prva HNL and going undefeated since November 2014—a string of 41 matches. While they've lorded it over the Croatian league, the same can hardly be said of their forays into the Champions League. Despite qualifying for the playoff round in 1998-99, 1999-00, 2011-12, and 2012-13, they've never qualified for the group-stage. For as much as they've dominated domestically, in other words, that success has not carried over to the international level. According to UEFA, they've only scored four goals in their lastt twelve Champions League group fixtures, and they haven't won since 1999-2000. That's 15 games with only two draws. Making matters worse, Dinamo have lost their last six games to English visitors, although, to be fair, that history does include the likes of Fulham, Tottenham, and Manchester United, so take that with a hefty grain of salt.

That's all in the past. What's more important is who we're facing in the present. As with West Ham, we have to know that we're facing a squad that is already battle-tested, forged in a fierce cauldron. To reach the group-stage, Dinamo had to play six matches. In other words, they're already in full battle-mode. By contrast, we've sauntered into the season, getting surprised by a similarly soldered West Ham squad and finding our way past Crystal Palace, Newcastle, and Stoke while failing to inspire or intimidate. For as much as we might like to look past this fixture in order to size up Bayern, we can ill-afford to stumble against these particular Blues while enjoying the suffering of those other Blues.

The player to watch will be centre-forward Ángelo Henríquez. The Chilean national has electrified the club's followers (sound familar?) with six goals and four assists in ten appearances. This run of form comes on the heels of a stellar 2014-15 campaign in which he tallied 29 goals and five assists in 37 appearances. Even accounting for the quality of play in the Prva HNL and the early rounds of Champions League qualification, Henríquez has shown that he's a threat.

However, as with the last time we faced Dinamo, I'd expect Arsène to name a squad full of youth rather than experience, with an eye to Saturday's trip to Stamford Bridge. While we can hardly afford to leave Zagreb with anything less than three points, we can't afford a chance to kick Mourinho when he's down.

LAST THREE
  • Arsenal 2-1 Dinamo Zagreb (23.08.2006)
  • Dinamo Zagreb 0-3 Arsenal (08.08.2006)
  • That's all she wrote, folks.
FACTFILE
  • Dinamo Zagreb have never defeated an English visitor.
  • The only goal a Dinamo player has scored against Arsenal came from a player who would go on to leave Dinamo to play for Arsenal.
INJURIES
  • Mertesacker continues to recover; Wilshere, Welbeck, and Rosický, have been ruled out.
POSSIBLE STARTING XI
  • Čech; Debuchy, Kosicelny, Gabriel, Gibbs; Arteta, Ramsey; Alexis, Özil, Oxlade-Chamberlain; Walcott. 
PREDICTION
  • Dinamo Zagreb will likely play for the draw but won't have enough to hold us off for a full 90 minutes. Look to Walcott to cut them open—but from a wide position rather than through the middle, much as he did against Stoke.
  • Dinamo 0-2 Arsenal.