Group F is one of those Champions League groups where you just know, whichever way the cards fall, one team that would grace the knock-out rounds will be left cursing, weeping, headed for the trap door marked "Europa League." Choosing two out of this trio of thriving teams who love their football to be played with speed and sparkle is a complicated business. Is it possible to have a preference to miss out on the next stage – Borussia Dortmund? Arsenal? Napoli? Who do you want to lose? For neutrals without a vested interest, it’s a fiendishly difficult choice.
All three teams are sparring around the top of their leagues, won over the weekend — and are tied on six points. Arsenal are probably feeling the pressure more intensely than the others, as they have away games in both Dortmund and Naples on their menu. Borussia and Napoli only have one away game remaining against a serious group rival. (Olympique Marseilles, making up the numbers, look out of their depth in this company and have emerged as group whipping boys.)
Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud winced as he recalled the moment the momentum slipped from their grasp and into Dortmund’s hands. Everything changed with a late, lethal counter-attack when they met on Matchday three. Arsenal had been probing for a winner, which would have given them one foot through the qualification door. The sucker punch, as Robert Lewandowski appeared to apply the lethal finish to a sudden counter-attack, hit them hard.
"It was really frustrating," Giroud lamented. "We knew that we could have won it and we ended up losing. When you can’t win a game you have to avoid losing at all costs and that’s why we were so annoyed. It was a shame because if we drew it would be 7 points for us and 4 for Dortmund." Instead they are locked on six, with no margin for error when they meet again in Germany on Wednesday night. " If we lose in Dortmund it makes it really, really hard," Giroud added. "We need to put in a good performance, for sure."
Robert Lewandowski’s first-leg goal was a huge blow to Arsenal. (Photo: Mike Hewitt/Bongarts)
Dortmund are not short on confidence having thumped six goals past Stuttgart over the weekend. Arsenal were buoyant, too, as they opened up a five point lead at the top of the Premier League with a convincing win over Liverpool. That booster was needed ahead of a week that has been underlined with highlighter pen in the diary for ages. Liverpool followed by Borussia Dortmund away in the Champions League, and then Manchester United at Old Trafford. Test after test after test.
Arsenal’s status as Premier League challengers has become a bit of a running joke on England’s most-watched football show, the BBC’s Match of the Day. Every Saturday night the presenter, the former England striker Gary Lineker, asks his guests whether they think Arsenal are genuine contenders. The replies range from a cursory ‘no’, via the kind of expression someone might make if asked to eat a bowlful of steamed cockroaches, to doubts underlined by the fact they are yet to play any of the favorites in the form of the Manchester clubs or Chelsea.
But first things first, and that critical challenge in Dortmund, who are playing with the verve that reflects their manager’s insatiable appetite for a football style he likens to heavy metal. They will certainly put on a show that will be deafening and energetic. That is more or less guaranteed at the atmospheric Westfalenstadion.
Apart from the all-important score line, the other statistic that stood out from their rendezvous at the Emirates reinforced how much relentless effort Dortmund put into their high-tempo pressing game. Collectively, the German team ran more than 10 kilometers farther than their English counterparts.
Jurgen Klopp’s explanation gave a fascinating insight into what he expects from his team. "Coaches will say that it’s not important for their team to run more and they prefer to make games the right way," says the Dortmund coach. "I want to make games only the right way and run 10km more. It’s a rule to give all and it can make the difference if you work more."
One motivating factor lies beneath the surface. Dortmund are not only looking to clamber out of Group F. Somewhere in the back of their minds the desire to reach the final, to try to go one better than last year, burns. For a defeated Champions League finalists to bounce back to win the following season is a rarity – though Bayern Munich managed it last year. Previous to that, it’s necessary to rewind 20 years. AC Milan lost to Marseille in 1993, and recovered to pulverize Barcelona 4-0 the following summer.
Dortmund couldn’t possibly countenance tumbling down that "Europa League" trap door.