Group F is easily one of the most unpredictable and potentially competitive in this year’s competition. Arsenal, Dortmund and Marseille have all had sluggish starts to the new season and have yet to live up to their potential or expectations. Their fluctuating form and the fact that this is Dortmund’s first venture into Champions League football under Klopp could make for an exciting six match days. Arsenal and Dortmund both play a brand of high tempo attacking football while Deschamps will carry with him plenty of Champions League experience, both as player and manager. Defending Greek champions Olympiakos meanwhile won their league decisively last year and could well be the surprise package of this group.
Here is an overview of Group F and what to expect from the sides involved:
Dortmund bewildered everyone last season with their dynamic style of football and energetic performances. They seemingly came out of nowhere and took the league by storm, wiping Bayern and the rest of the league aside as if a leaf in the wind, nearly setting a new defensive record along the way. It is that balance between attack and defense, made up by a core of young up and coming talent, that has many German football supporters enthusiastic and optimistic about their chances in Europe this year. That said, there are some outstanding concerns that could hamper the continuing Cinderella story. Firstly, this will be Dortmund’s first appearance in the Champions League since 2003. The clubs has been completely overhauled since and only Roman Weidenfeller and Sebastian Kehl are still around. The young complexion of the squad brings a sense of exuberance seen in their football but also inevitable inexperience and a potential naiveté that could prove costly in the tournament.
Klopp has been using the 4-2-3-1 as his standard formation and never deviated from it, even when it seemed like it did not work. His belief is commendable but tactical versatility has become one of the prerequisites to success in Europe. Moreover, the loss of Nuri Sahin as the central component of his side has been more visible than Dortmund supporters would like. Sahin’s ability to control the tempo and flow of the match was an invaluable characteristic going into the compact and cerebral nature of the Champions League and without him they are missing a key ingredient, not only to the team’s overall style of play, but to their ability to shift tactically in the competitive setting of such a tournament. The element of surprise is on his side though, Dortmund being an unknown entity and playing a brand of football that most sides struggle to deal with. How Klopp adapts around that loss and deals with his side’s inexperience will be key to their outcome in this group
Key Players: Roman Weidenfeller, Neven Subotic, Mats Hummels, Sven Bender, Mario Götze, Shinji Kagawa, Lucas Barrios, Kevin Grosskreutz
Prediction: Jürgen Klopp has drilled his side well in the last three years and the talent is there for Dortmund to survive this group. If they play to their potential and make their inexperience work for them a first or second place finish is realistic. If not, it could be Europa League all over again.
Six years and counting without a trophy. The much-maligned troubles of Arsene Wenger and his club have been well documented in the last couple of years and their slow start to the season and taciturn transfer activities during the summer have only added to the mounting pressure. Wenger is a lot like Klopp in the sense that both have an admirable and relentless faith in their philosophy and players despite outside criticism. Both are adored by their players and seen as father figures more than football coaches and both also have an inherent ability to nurture and get the best out of young talent. Whereas Klopp emphasizes the importance of a strong defense though, Wenger has recently struggled in that area and going into another Champions League campaign that will be one of the biggest talking points. The purchase of German international Mertesacker and talents of goalkeeper Szczesney will help the club but the constant injuries to key players have impeded the development of any kind of defensive consistency.
Arsenal’s record in the Champions League group stage is admirable though and despite the concerns that seemingly appear every year they persevere when it matters most. Despite the young age of the squad, Arsenal are also the most experienced side in this group and few managers know the competition as well as Wenger. That experience will be their ace in the hole against sides that have not featured in this competition consistently over the last decade. Another feature that should help Arsenal is their depth, not so much the quality in it as much as Wenger’s willingness and readiness to rotate and use different options at his disposal. Wenger can comfortably replace players and maintain his playing style and level of performance, something that Klopp is still working on with Dortmund.
Key Players: Wojciech Szczesney, Thomas Vermalen, Per Mertesacker, Jack Wilshere, Robin van Persie, Mikel Arteta, Andrey Arshawin, Gervinho
Prediction: It might take Arsenal a while to find their groove and play to their potential but they have personnel and experience to win this group, from a player and managerial perspective.
Didier Deschamps has done a formidable job since taking over at the Velodrome in 2009. In his first season in charge, he led Marseille to their first league title in 18 years after a decade long stronghold by rivals Lyon as well as winning France’s domestic cup. Deschamps is no stranger to success though having won multiple titles as a player in his day at club and international level, including the Champions League with Marseille in the early 1990’s. That success carried over into his managerial career, leading underdogs Monaco to the Champions League final in 2003 in one of the most surprising performances in recent tournament history and leading Juventus back into Italy’s top flight after their sanctioned relegation during the Italian football scandal five years ago. Still one of the most underrated managers in football, that is the kind of pedigree Deschamps will bring into the competition. Akin to his peers at Dortmund and Arsenal, Deschamps is well versed in the ability to get the most out of his team, a trait that has so far defined his young yet impressive managerial career.
As a team Marseille have yet to find their full stride this season, floundering at the bottom of the table and still winless five matches in. And although they lost two first team regulars in Taiwo and Heinze over the summer, their standing is not indicative of the side’s quality. Marseille finished runners up last year and came close to two successive league titles. They did bring in the experienced Alou Diarra (once part of Bayern Munich’s youth set up) to add stability in midfield and will look to get the best out of talented players like Ayew, Gonzalez and Remy. Marseille started slowly in last year’s group stages, losing the first two matches, but rounded into form, scoring 14 goals and conceding none in their last four matches of the group before being narrowly eliminated by Manchester United in the Round of 16. It may well be another case of a slow start for Marseille this season, the only question being how long.
Key Players: Steve Mandanda, Souleymane Diawara, Stephane Mbia, Alou Diarra, Lucho Gonzalez, Mathieu Valbuena, Andre Ayew, Loic Remy,
Prediction: Deschamps will no doubt have Marseille prepared despite their poor domestic form and if he can get his side to gel in time for the finale couple of matches of the group stage they could well make advance to the Round of 16 again.
Perhaps best remembered for the way they went out to Liverpool in that final group stage of the 2005 Champions League season, the defending Greek champions are not to be underestimated. They won the Greek Super Liga decisively last season, finishing 13 points ahead of second place rivals Panathinaikos and scoring an impressive 65 goals in 30 matches. They lost striker Mitroglu and the leagues’ assist leader Riera over the summer but in Pantelic, Mirallas and Fuster Olympiakos will have a very creative and dangerous attacking trio that combined for 35 goals last season. And in Ernesto Valverde they have a tactically astute manager who emphasizes a good brand of attacking football.
It was an overall disappointing showing in Europe last year for the Greek club, being eliminated in the third round of the Europa League by Maccabi Tel Aviv so they have certain expectations to live up to this year. Moreover, they have gotten past the group stage on only two occasions in the last decade so they are not short on motivation. Olympiakos has always been traditionally strong at home in Europe, beating the likes of Real Madrid, Liverpool, Arsenal, Bayer Leverkusen and Werder Bremen in the last couple of years, and that will again be their primary strong point in this group. As a result, all three sides could end up dropping points when they make their trips to Greece and their performance at home will be key in their quest to make it past the group stage.
Key Players: Olof Mellberg, Vasilis Torosidis, Jean Makoun, Ariel Ibgaza, Ioannis Fetfatzidis, David Fuster, Kevin Mirallas, Marco Pantelic
Prediction: Most will expect Olympiakos to finish last in this group but the volatility and inconsistency of their competitors makes this as open a group as any this season and Olympiakos may just take advantage.
Click here for Previews of Group A and E
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