Arsenal faces day's stiffest test

BY Jamie Trecker • October 19, 2011

Arsenal face a crucial game in France against a wounded Marseille while the other major powers are expected to coast as Match Day Three concludes across Europe on Wednesday. Barcelona, AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea are all in action, all facing teams they are expected to beat. The lone wrinkle is Porto’s meeting with shock group leaders APOEL Nicosia, and even there the Portuguese champs are expected to hand the visitors their first loss.

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The London Gunners needed a rescue from Robin van Persie against Sunderland this past week in a game that showed better defensive poise but poorer finishing. Arsenal were terrible on free-kicks, another sign of the lack of confidence that his infected the squad. Arsene Wenger conceded to the French media that his locker room had been “split” by the high-profile defections of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, and moreover, that “half the squad” wanted to follow suit.

As it stands, injury problems remain a worry. Kieran Gibbs is the latest to go down, joining Thomas Vermaelen, Jack Wilshere and Bacary Sagna on the trainer’s table. Speaking of which, the French sports newspaper L’Equipe stirred up a storm when they said Arsenal’s medical staff was so poor that an unnamed player had actually sought medical advice from a rival club.

Marseille’s domestic form is totally at odds with what they’ve achieved in Europe: two straight wins. A win here would put them in pole position and create real headaches for the Gunners. Mathieu Valbuena, Andre-Pierre Gignac and Loic Remy have all performed for the French but the hosts will miss suspended Jordan Ayew and Rod Fanni.

Borussia Dormund meet Olympiakos in the other group game; they’ll be without injured Lucas Barrios for a tough trip to Greece. Olympiakos have lost the man who scored their only European goal of the season so far (David Fuster) to a cracked rib, and while they are not a particularly flexible or attractive team, the Greek side is notoriously hard to break down at home.

Elsewhere, the pickings are frankly slim. Chelsea are expected to brush off Belgians Genk to cement their hold atop Group E, and the only question that remains is whether troubled striker Fernando Torres will get a call. Daniel Sturridge has been hot for the Blues, but the key man has turned out to be winger Juan Mata, who slowly but surely is becoming one of the best wide players in the Premiership. Defense remains a question with the aging John Terry too often conceding space in an effort to save his legs, but Genk’s not expected to present much of a challenge to Petr Cech’s net. One notable absence is Ramires, who left the weekend’s whipping of Aston Villa with a knee injury.

Bayer Leverkusen meet Valencia in a back-to-back test that is likely to determine the second-place finisher out of Chelsea's group. But the Germans face a tall order. They are missing Rene Adler, Tranquillo Barnetta and Renato Augusto to long-term injuries and face a potent Valencia side that has lost just a single game: at rivals Sevilla. Valencia come in fresh, with Roberto Soldado and Artiz Aduriz expected to provide the bite while the devilish Ever Banega brings the headaches.

In Portugal, Hulk and Kleber will be back up top for Porto against shock leaders APOEL — but surely the tiny Cypriot team from Nicosia will not be able to withstand the Portuguese champions’ assault. Right? Porto have only lost one game in their last 10 at home against European opposition — and haven’t lost a league game at the Dragao since last February. Shakhtar and Zenit meet in the group's other game in a matchup that looks better on paper — but could be deadly dull if the Russians elect to play defense-first in Ukraine.

Finally, AC Milan are expected to brush aside meek BATE Borisov while Barcelona shouldn’t really be tested by Plzen. This is a soft group (Group H) for the giants and the only question — not likely to be decided until late November — is which minnow drops out and which gets the Europa League booby prize.


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