Arsenal's manager, Arsène Wenger, is back on familiar ground, in his home country and leading the club's 15th successive Champions League campaign, although in an unfamiliar position. He will watch tonight's opening group match against the French champions Montpellier from the stand, serving the first part of a three-match touchline ban after his fierce criticism of the referee following Arsenal's brave attempt to overcome a 4-0 deficit from the first leg against Milan last March.
"I'd prefer to be on the touchline, it's where I feel most comfortable," he said at the Stade de la Mosson last night. "But we'll talk before the game and from there I'll leave it to Steve Bould, who's very experienced. I'm frustrated but I don't think it would be an excuse for a bad result."
Nor would picking the wrong team, although there are tricky decisions to be made; above all whether Olivier Giroud, the striker signed from Montpellier for £9.7m in the summer and desperate for a chance to play tonight, is given the opportunity. Wenger may yet deny him. Sitting at the stadium last night alongside Gervinho, who scored twice in the central striker's role on Saturday against Southampton, the manager said: "For forwards it's a matter of cycle. Olivier Giroud is going through a rough patch but maybe he just needs a goal to get out of this drought. It's different in England for two positions, forwards and for goalkeepers. It's a real shock for them because there's a lot more contact."
The French champions' story is an astonishing one of a club from a provincial rugby town who had never won anything more than two French Cups but suddenly flourished last season and, on the back of 20 goals from Giroud, rose from 14th place the previous year to pip the infinitely wealthier Paris St-Germain to the title.
A comparison might be with Wigan Athletic winning the Premier League, if the notion of such an achievement did not seem so ludicrous in modern English football. Yet the miracle of Montpellier may prove to be anything but a lasting one. Already this season they are back in more familiar territory, 16th in the league with a single victory from the opening five games. Emanuel Herrera, the Argentine bought for £2m to replace Giroud, is unsure of his place tonight and John Utaka, the only name familiar to English fans from his FA Cup-winning time at Portsmouth, will be absent with an injury suffered in Friday night's 3-1 defeat by Reims.
The coach, René Girard, once in charge of France's Under-21s and the architect of last season's triumph, has options; it is just that they are not as enticing as those of Wenger, who believes the consolation of losing Robin van Persie – apart, of course, from the fee £24m fee – is that Arsenal's play is more "diversified" instead of invariably being channelled towards one Roy of the Rovers figure.
Defenders Laurent Koscielny and Andre Santos have been waiting in vain to start a game, while the Welsh captain Aaron Ramsey is now behind Mikel Arteta, Abou Diaby and the impressive Santi Cazorla in the central midfield pecking order. There are four or five contenders for the two wide positions while Van Persie's central striking role has become a revolving door that Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Gervinho have all passed through.
Gervinho's confidence is high after his two goals against Southampton ended a long drought of his own since returning from the African Nations Cup in January. He believes that second-season syndrome, more beneficial to foreign players than newly promoted clubs, may work in his favour: "I'm hoping that will be the case. I learnt a lot in my first season. And it's easier for me when the coach has confidence in me."
Vito Mannone will be back in goal, not because Wenger was horrified by Wojciech Szczesny's error that gave Southampton their goal on Saturday but because both the Pole and his compatriot Lukasz Fabianski are injured. It was the only time in four games that a defence now drilled by Bould has been pierced and, for all the fervour of a crowd likely to be close to a capacity 32,000 tonight, Arsenal will not expect to lose.
Kick-off Tonight, 7.45pm, Stade de la Mosson.
TV Sky Sports 2.
Referee C V Carballo (Sp).
Odds Montpellier 13-5; draw 9-4; Arsenal 5-4.