Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Arsenal stretched to the limit ahead of Champions League tie with Marseilles

Arsene Wenger
Arsene Wenger

There was an uneasy juxtaposition here last night as Arsène Wenger heralded the start of what he believes is the toughest Champions League group of all by warning his squad is already threadbare through injury.

The Gunners arrived in Provence ahead of their Group F opener against Marseilles without eight first-team players and a paucity of options on the bench.

Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla, Abou Diaby, Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Nicklas Bendtner, Mikel Arteta and Yaya Sanogo are all nursing various ailments ahead of a match that marks the start of six games in 19 days before the next international break.

Wenger received some good news today when striker Olivier Giroud passed a fitness test and defender Per Mertesacker shook off an illness, but with Bendtner convalescing after thigh surgery, 17-year-old forward Chuba Akpom will be among the substitutes at the Stade Vélodrome this evening.

But the manager's concerns ahead of such a hectic schedule are palpable, especially given the importance of starting well in this competition with the bigger threats of Napoli and Borussia Dortmund lying in wait.

"Of course, I am concerned because we play now for two months every three or four days and it is important we get some players back because you cannot play for the next two months with the squad we have at the moment," said Wenger.

"If you look at the group, I would say yes, it is the hardest group because all the four teams have a chance to qualify. That means that every game is basically a very important one.

"On average you need 10 points to qualify so that gives you the task. Ten points in a group as difficult as that could be a reasonable number to get through."

Arsenal can draw considerable comfort from their remarkable away form, an improvement over the last six months which has been inextricably linked to this competition.

Victory against Bayern Munich in March may have not been enough to reach the last eight but beating the eventual winners sparked something in this team that propelled them on a run to leapfrog Tottenham in the Premier League, securing fourth place and another crack at Europe's elite.

They have been invincible away from home ever since. They set a record of nine successive wins on the road in easing past Sunderland last weekend and arrived in Provence last night aiming to make it a perfect 10.

"[We are] an exceptional team" said Mertesacker. "That's the main thing. We built up confidence from last season, especially the last 10 games where we didn't lose anything.

"You could feel it from the first day that there is something special in this team, apart from the first game [against Aston Villa], but no one dropped and the performance went well after that as well. We have shown so far that we are ready to keep our confidence and keep the run going."

They have, however, lost six of their last 14 away games in the Champions League and know anything other than victory here will limit the margin for error against more vaunted opposition.

Aaron Ramsey scored a stoppage-time winner on Arsenal's previous visit two years ago and similar resilience is required in what looks the sternest challenge yet to their unbroken run of reaching the knockout stages, which stretches back 13 seasons.

It is one of the enduring constants at Arsenal. Just like their injury list.

Kick-off 7.45pm.

TV Sky Sports 4 (h/l: 10pm, SS1)

Referee O Benquerença (Port)

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