Wednesday 9 December 2009, Kick-off: 20:45CET (21:45 local time)
Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus, Greece
Arsenal's youngsters can't expect Greeks to be bearing gifts...
The final matchday in Group H sees hosts Olympiakos needing just a point to accompany visitors Arsenal into the last 16. The Gunners have already qualified as group winners, having dropped only two points over the first five matchdays. But the Greek champions, who have won both their home games in the group so far, have not yet secured their qualification for the knock-out stage. A draw against Arsenal - or Standard Liege failing to beat AZ in the other Group H fixture on Wednesday - would see them through for the second time in three seasons.
The two sides met for the first time ever on Matchday 2, when the English Premier League outfit triumphed 2-0 thanks to late goals from Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin, after Olympiakos goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis had kept the Gunners at bay for the first 78 minutes at the Emirates.
With their own qualification still to be earned, Zico's side may be encouraged not only by the fact that the north London giants have already sewn up the group winners' spot, but also by the fact that a crippling injury list just keeps getting longer for Arsene Wenger, severely limiting his selection options. As the main objective of winning the group has already been achieved, Wenger might anyway have been tempted to rest some key players - especially with a tough and potentially significant trip to Anfield to come at the weekend, when Liverpool will be looking to maintain their recent improvement by closing the gap on the Gunners in the Premier League.
But with as many as 12 first team regulars likely to be unavailable in Piraeus, Wenger's team selection may be forced upon him by circumstance. He has indicated that he has little choice but to send out a youthful line-up against Olympiakos of the sort he normally deploys in the domestic League Cup. Indeed, the Arsenal team is expected to include similar personnel to those who were beaten 3-0 by Manchester City in last week's League Cup quarter-final at Eastlands. Wenger has challenged his young players to prove that they are better than they appeared to be on that chastening occasion in Manchester. Quite how they respond to that challenge will go a long way towards determining how easy - or difficult - the task for Olympiakos proves to be.
The Greek leaders go into the match in good shape, a point clear of arch-rivals Panathinaikos at the top of their domestic league, having beaten Skoda Xanthi 1-0 away on Saturday to maintain their unbeaten league record this season after 13 matches. Leonardo scored the decisive goal just after the half-hour mark. It was his third of the campaign in a match that saw Luciano Galletti back in action after a month on the sidelines, and Avraam Papadopoulos taking the place of the injured Michal Zewlakow in the middle of the Olympiakos defence.
The win means the Red & Whites have not lost a Greek Super League match since going down 1-0 at home to Larissa on 12 April in the penultimate game of last season, by which time they had already clinched their fifth sucessive title and 12th in the last 13 seasons. Immediately before beating Xanthi they had triumphed 2-0 over Panathinaikos in a top-of-the-table clash, ending a sequence of three straight draws in all competitions - including a goalless encounter with AZ Alkmaar on Matchday 5 of Group H in the Champions League.
Arsenal beat Standard Liege 2-0 at the Emirates on Matchday 5 - but that win, and Saturday's 2-0 home win against Stoke City in the Premier League - punctuated three defeats in their last five outings. After Sunderland beat them 1-0 away to end a run of 13 games unbeaten in all competitions for Wenger's side, league leaders Chelsea inflicted upon them a damaging 3-0 home defeat. Then last Wednesday in the League Cup, full-strength Manchester City punished an unfamiliar-looking Arsenal line-up by the same scoreline.
The weekend victory over Stoke was therefore vital to stop the rot and restore some confidence in the ranks. It was achieved, after Cesc Fabregas had seen his penalty saved, through goals from Andrey Arshavin, playing as a centre-forward and leading the Stoke central defenders a merry dance with his movement and vision, and Aaron Ramsey, who had come on as a substitute. The three points took the Gunners back up to third in the table, eight points behind Chelsea with a game in hand.
While Olympiakos will be looking to make it three home wins out of three in their group matches, Arsenal have a good record against Greek opposition. They've lost just two of eleven fixtures against Hellenic sides, winning six. However, their two defeats were both in away fixtures - 1-0 at Panathinaikos in the 2001-02 first group stage, and 1-0 against PAOK in the UEFA Cup first round in 1997-98. But the Gunners are unbeaten in three away games in this season's Champions League, including their 2-0 win in Glasgow against Celtic in the play-offs.
Meanwhile Olympiakos have won only two of 17 previous competitive clashes against English sides, losing 12. Their two wins (both 1-0) were against Liverpool in the 2004-05 Champions League group stage, and against Arsenal's north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur in the 1972-73 UEFA Cup second round.
05 Dec (Super League) v Skoda Xanthi (A) WON 1-0
29 Nov (Super League) v Panathinaikos (H) WON 2-0
21 Nov (Super League) v Giannina (A) DREW 2-2
07 Nov (Super League) v Iraklis (H) DREW 1-1
31 Oct (Super League) v Atromitos (A) WON 1-0
05 Dec (Premier League) v Stoke City (H) WON 2-0
02 Dec (League Cup) v Man City (A) LOST 0-3
29 Nov (Premier League) v Chelsea (H) LOST 0-3
21 Nov (Premier League) v Sunderland (A) LOST 0-1
07 Nov (Premier League) v Wolverhampton W (A) WON 4-1
Matchday 5 v AZ Alkmaar (A) DREW 0-0
Matchday 4 v Standard Liege (A) LOST 0-2
Matchday 3 v Standard Liege (H) WON 2-1
Matchday 2 v Arsenal (A) LOST 0-2
Matchday 1 v AZ Alkmaar (H) WON 1-0
Play-off 2nd leg v Sheriff (H) WON 1-0
Play-off 1st leg v Sheriff (A) WON 2-0
3rd Qual Rnd 2nd leg v Slovan Bratislava (H) WON 2-0
3rd Qual Rnd 1st leg v Slovan Bratislava (A) WON 2-0
Matchday 5 v Standard Liege (H) WON 2-0
Matchday 4 v AZ Alkmaar (H) WON 4-1
Matchday 3 v AZ Alkmaar (A) DREW 1-1
Matchday 2 v Olympiakos (H) WON 2-0
Matchday 1 v Standard Liege (A) WON 3-2
Play-off 2nd leg v Celtic (H) WON 3-1
Play-off 1st leg v Celtic (A) WON 2-0
Defenders Leonardo and Avraam Papadopoulos and midfielder Luciano Galletti all recently returned after injury lay-offs, but coach Zico, the legendary Brazilian playmaker, has a number of players still recovering from various problems. English striker Matt Derbyshire has been out since 12 September with a groin injury, while midfielder Andreas Vasilogiannis has undergone surgery on damaged cruciate knee ligaments and could be sidelined until March.
Argentine midfielder Cristian Ledesma underwent surgery to correct a meniscus problem in his knee on 19 November, ruling him out until the end of this year, while midfielder Jaouad Zairi missed the trip to Xanthi thanks to a thigh injury. Michal Zewlakow, the Polish defender, injured a groin in the recent game against Panathinaikos and was replaced by the returning Papadopoulos, but fellow-defender Vassilis Torosidis, having recovered from a knee problem, was diagnosed with swine flu last Thursday and will probably miss out.
Brazilian striker Diogo (left ankle), Greek midfielder Ieroklis Stoltidis (chest) and goalkeeper Leonidas Panagopoulos (back) have all been out for several weeks and could miss out again on Wednesday.
Last Starting XI (v Skoda Xanthi): Nikopolidis; Galitsios, A Papadopoulos, Mellberg, Raul Bravo; Galletti, Dudu, Maresca, Leonardo (Domi 67); Oscar (Pantos 79), Mitroglou (Katsikogiannis 90+2).
Last Starting XI in Champions League (v AZ Alkmaar): Nikopolidis, Mellberg, Galitsios, Oscar Gonzalez, Zairi (Pantos 90+3), Zewlakow, Raul Bravo, Dudu, Mitroglou, Leonardo, Maresca.
Arsene Wenger has described this season as Arsenal's worst for injuries, revealing that Czech midfielder Tomas Rosicky faces another lay-off after suffering a groin injury in the 2-0 win over Stoke. Rosicky, 29, has endured a miserable time with injuries, only making his comeback in September after 20 months on the sidelines. He has now been ruled out for a further six to eight weeks, and Wenger commented: "He's devastated and I am as well." It's little wonder, given that Wenger was already without top striker Robin van Persie until March after the Dutchman sustained ankle ligament damage playing for Holland against Italy.
Striker Nicklas Bendtner (groin), left-back Gael Clichy (back), forward Theo Walcott (hamstring), midfielder Abou Diaby (calf), left-back Kieran Gibbs (ankle) and centre-back Johan Djourou (knee) are all still unavailable, while striker Eduardo, who was not fit enough to be in the squad to face Stoke because of a thigh problem, is almost certain to miss the game in Piraeus.
To compound the problems, Wenger also saw versatile Emmanuel Eboue, defenders Armand Traore and William Gallas and forward Andrey Arshavin pick up injuries during the Stoke match. Hence his hint that the youngsters will be given another chance to impress on Wednesday, with veteran defender Mikael Silvestre probably providing the experience.
"You will see Fran [Merida], [Jack] Wilshere, etc," the French coach told Arsenal's official website. "We played Man City last week and they had a full side out. For an hour we did not suffer at all. After that yes we did. I will try to build a similar team in Greece. It will be a great game for them because Olympiakos will play for something. It is another good opportunity to show that we can do better than we did at Man City."
Last Starting XI (v Stoke): Almunia; Sagna, Vermaelen, Gallas, Traore (Silvestre 88); Eboue (Ramsey 54), Fabregas, Denilson; Rosicky (Vela 46), Arshavin, Nasri.
Last Starting XI in Champions League (v Standard Liege): Almunia, Eboue, Gallas (Silvestre 46), Vermaelen, Gibbs, Song, Fabregas, Denilson (Rosicky 67), Nasri (Walcott 60), Vela, Arshavin.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Goals have been hard to come by for the Greek champions in this group stage - they have managed only three in their five games, compared with Arsenal's 12. So there will be a goalscoring burden on the shoulders of, among others, striker Kostas Mitroglou. He netted the equaliser when Olympiakos came from behind to beat Standard Liege 2-1 at home on Matchday 3, and was also twice on target in the qualifying matches. In addition, he has scored five times in domestic competition this season, and could be the player the Arsenal defenders will have to watch most closely in and around their penalty area.
Wenger has already signalled that highly-rated young playmaker Jack Wilshere will feature in Piraeus, and in a week in which the teenager has talked of going out on loan to another Premier League club to gain more first-team experience, this is his chance to show 'Le Boss' that he is ready to step up more frequently for the Gunners, without the need for a stint away from the Emirates. In common with most of his team-mates, Wilshere had a disappointing night at Eastlands last week, so this is a great opportunity to put the record straight and display the vision, control and scheming abilities that have caused so many to predict an exciting future for the lad from Stevenage.
The hosts, strong at home so far in this campaign, still have much at stake - so will probably be going for the three points, while knowing that one will suffice. Arsenal's young side should be determined to avoid the sort of demoralising lesson they received a week ago, and Wenger will be looking for a spirited display in which they make their possession count. It could result in a draw - an outcome that would satisfy honour and ambition on both sides,
Olympiakos 1-1 Arsenal
Graham Lister, Goal.com UK