Arsenal kick off their 2016/17 Champions League campaign with the toughest fixture of the group as they face Paris St. Germain in the Parc des Princes tonight.
Arsenal head into their 19th consecutive Champions League campaign tonight with an ignominious record looming over the club: they have lost in the first knockout round for the last six seasons running. It is a record that Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is keen to overcome this season. But, to maximize their chances of getting through to the Quarter Finals Arsenal will need to secure top berth in Group A, a division which includes FC Basel, Ludogorets Razgrad, and an injury ravaged (and transfer depleted) Paris St. Germain. It is a group that Arsenal should top quite easily and while a win tonight over PSG is not crucial, it will set them on the right track.
Arsene Wenger is publicly bullish on his team’s chances saying that “this is one of my strongest squads, certainly. And certainly one of the oldest as well. I always believed we had a chance, even when we had young players but, certainly, I haven’t had a squad of players [like this] for a long time; full of players who have enough experience to compete.”
Wenger is confident because he has spent to increase squad depth in key areas. Arsenal spent nearly £100m to bring in midfielder Granit Xhaka, center half Shkodran Mustafi, and highly rated forward Lucas Perez. All three players are automatic starters on many teams across Europe but owing to Arsenal’s depth, Wenger has the luxury of resting players, like Xhaka, in some domestic matches so that they will be fresh for the Champions League.
On the other end of the pitch, PSG sold talismanic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Man U and David Lulz to Chelsea in what looks like an attempt to move toward Financial Fair Play compliance. PSG have also lost Thiago Silva, Serge Aurier, and Javier Pastore to injury though all three could play tonight having made a fist of a comeback over the weekend. PSG are also missing the power of Blaise Matuidi in midfield as he featured heavily for France at Euro 2016 this Summer.
PSG manager Unai Emery is no slouch as a manager. He won the Europa League three consecutive times while at Sevilla and is a cup tie specialist. Typically, his teams tend to play a very defensive set up and rely heavily on a set of defensive-minded center mids. At Sevilla that was Grzegorz Krychowiak and Steven N’Zonzi — a pair that beat Liverpool 3-1 in the final in Basel last Spring.
Here with PSG, Emery has a comity of defensive midfielders to choose from (when healthy): Matuidi, Verratti, Rabiot, Krychowiak, and Thiago Motta can and have all featured in the role so far this season, often with two or even three of them playing at the same time. Most recently against Monaco, Emery played Verratti, Rabiot, and Motta in a midfield three and lost 3-1.
PSG are struggling to find form in Ligue Un so far this season, sitting in 7th place with just 7 points in their first four matches. And having dropped points in their last two matches, fans are already starting to become restless in the Parc des Princes, a sentiment that Arsenal supporters can understand with Arsene under considerable pressure with a similar start to the season.
Wenger is tipped to start Olivier Giroud up front in this match. The French forward has only come off the bench so far this season but has shown some return to form with a diving header on Saturday off a Cazorla cross which nearly found the back of the net. Astride Giroud, Arsene may start new signing Lucas Perez on the left. Conventional wisdom has Wenger playing Alexis Sanchez but with the Chilean also suffering a long Summer of Fifa football we could see Wenger save him as a late sub if needed. On the right, Wenger will probably start Theo Walcott.
In midfield, Arsene is expected to start Granit Xhaka along with Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil. The one tricky question here is what to do with Cazorla. Wenger can’t play him every match and, despite his suggestion of an ultra deep squad, he doesn’t have a natural replacement for the tricky little Spaniard. Aaron Ramsey is a possibility in the shuttling role in midfield though that experiment hasn’t worked well in the past with the Welshman preferring a more advanced role.
In defense, Wenger (unless there is an injury) will start with a settled back line of Bellerin, Mustafi, Cech, Koscielny, and Monreal.
Arsenal’s men will have to be up for the game. PSG are a dangerous team up front with Cavani (who misses a lot of chances, but gets a lot of chances) and Angel di Maria supplying the final ball at speed. Arsenal fullback Nacho Monreal also warned of Emery’s tactics and how Arsenal will be tested both in and out of possession. “Playing against them will definitely help us know our real level. On the other hand, PSG’s manager Unai Emery is very well known by our Spanish players and we are aware of how dangerous his teams are. He usually builds strong teams, capable of pressing really intensely or good with ball possession. Our fixture against PSG is going to be a great test for both clubs, but we also have a great squad and I am expecting a great game against them.”