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PREVIEW: UEFA Champions League, Schalke 04 v Arsenal

Arsenal head into a match their fans term a ‘must-win’ fixture. Their form of late has been woeful. They lost to the Red Devils last weekend, with the 2-1 scoreline barely showing the lop sidedness of the match. Their previous fixtures in the league haven’t been good either. A 1-0 win over QPR was preceded by a loss of the same scoreline to Norwich. In between, there was the modern day classic 7-5 win against Reading, when they were trailing by four goals in the 40th minute. All they need currently, and you can argue, is sheer willpower and perseverance, as Schalke are not an easy team to defeat.

LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 24: Jefferson Farfan of Schalke 04 goes between Andre Santos and Andrey Arshavin of Arsenal during the UEFA Champions League Group B match between Arsenal and FC Schalke at the Emirates Stadium.

Schalke 04

Schalke were on a considerable high of late, as they won their last 5 league fixtures since the loss to Bayern, but they were brought back to the ground after a last minute 3-2 loss to Hoffenheim this Saturday. But they are yet to be beaten in the UCL fixtures this week as they sit on top of their group, one point over the Gunners. They are second in the Bundesliga as well. The last time Arsenal played here, group stage fixture in October 2001, they lost 3-1. A lot of water has passed beneath the bridge since then.

According to Schalke coach Huub Stevens,

“Before the game it’s not about figures or statistics. The only thing that counts is the task ahead of us. And it isn’t easy. Arsenal are a good side with lots of quality. I’ve watched their recent games very attentively.

“We’ve prepared well.

“It’s nothing to do with the defeat at Hoffenheim, it’s our general freshness. Some of the players are a little tired after our recent busy schedule. I want to wait until after today’s training session.”

Schalke seem to possess a balanced team on paper, with the talented Lewis Holtby in midfield playing behind a formidable front three of ‘Class’-Jan Huntelaar, Jefferson Farfan and Barcelona loanee Ibrahim Afellay, who got on the score sheet against the Gunners at the Emirates. Coming to the Schalke defence, young and talented Germany international Benedikt Howedes and a solid Kyriakos Papadopoulos, aided by Christian Fuchs and Joel Matip should be a tall order for the possible Arsenal duo of Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski.

The German does have experience in the Bundesliga, but only time will tell if he could make a telling impact.

Schalke, who have lost only two of their past 12 Champions League games in Gelsenkirschen, have no major injury troubles, with the only absentees being defender Christoph Metzelder (groin), while midfielder Marco Hoeger is struggling with a left ankle injury. A small concern though might be over centre-back Kyriakos Papadopoulos, who suffered a cut above his eyebrow on Saturday.

The Greek international suffered the injury in Schalke’s 3-2 defeat at Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga on Saturday.

LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 24: Captain Benedikt Howedes of Schalke 04 shakes hands with Andre Santos and Lukas Podolski of Arsenal prior to the UEFA Champions League Group B match between Arsenal and FC Schalke at the Emirates Stadium.

Arsenal

All the good defensive work by Steve Bould seems to have been undone in the past few fixtures. The fans are screaming for blood, as seen during the Annual General Meeting, where the overwhelming evidence suggested that the Top 4 is a bigger ambition for the Gunners than a Cup win. Financially, no fingers can be pointed at the Board, but the fans don’t care much about finances.

All they want are wins and silverware, and you don’t have to look further than City fans to support this. Hence a confident Cup run becomes vital to the Gunners’ ambitions. The last time Arsenal faced Schalke, they drew blanks all over the pitch as the away side enjoyed a crucial 2-0 win, to take themselves top of the group with a single point lead over the Gunners after the first round of fixtures.

Hence this game becomes rather crucial for the Gunners, as a win will not only silence, albeit temporarily, the discontent among the fans, but will also be a massive boost of confidence, having won away on German soil. But Schalke are a formidable opposition, and Arsenal’s infamous nemesis – injuries – are back to haunt them at a crucial point again. Injuries and fatigue to key players like Abou Diaby, Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott, Wojciech Szczesny, Alex Chamberlain  and Gervinho saw them play without any natural width against the Red Devils.

How much of an impact that had on the final scoreline is for anyone to argue. Wenger has confirmed that Theo does have a stomach problem and declined to confirm or deny his participation for the match. Aaron Ramsey has been ruled out for this match. The odds seem against the Gunners.

Arsene Wenger had the following to say before the match,

“At the moment they have forgotten how good they are.

“I believe that if you look at our overall performance we are indeed good, we are still the best defence in the league. If you look at the goals conceded, I believe at the moment we don’t have to focus too much on that. Our game is about creating chances, about going forward, about having an offensive drive.”

“What is most important is that we play again with our enthusiasm, desire to create chances and enjoy our game, more than about ‘do we concede a goal or not.”

A possible Arsenal lineup, current injuries pertaining, should consist of Podolski and Theo on either side of Giroud, but if the speedster fails to recover, we might as well see Cazorla on the right, provided Wenger sticks to the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 formation. But we cannot discount Andrei Arshavin either, though the diminutive Russian has barely played for Arsenal this season. Wenger has confirmed that Jack Wilshere will be playing, so the midfield might consist of Arteta, Wilshere and Coquelin. Mannone will start between the sticks, and he has been on good form.

The defense might throw some surprises and it will be interesting to see if Wenger persists with Santos, who doesn’t seem to be up to the task on the left side of the defense. Add to this the half-time shirt swap controversy with van Persie, and you have gotten yourself a troubled mind indeed. We will have to wait and see if Wenger plays Thomas Vermaelen on the left, with Laurent Koscielny and the giant German Per Mertesacker through the middle. A fit Sagna might mean that Jenkinson won’t get a start this time around, but the lad has been good defensively, with Sagna acknowledging recently that he has a bright future at Arsenal.

After a dismissal in the weekend, the fans would be hoping for more from their current golden boy Wilshere.

This will be a tough match for the Gunners, who will be looking to set the record straight and go top of the group, but you could say the same about Schalke, who would want to compensate for the weekend loss by winning this fixture and consolidating their lead at the top. The pundits seem to favour Schalke for this one and Huntelaar seems a good bet to score. Watch out for Howedes and Mertesacker on set pieces, while Giroud might just want to show why he could be a deadly striker on his day.

Schalke Last 5 fixtures –

L-W-W-W-W

Nov 3, 2012 Hoffenheim 3 – Schalke 04  2, Bundesliga

Oct 30, 2012 Schalke 04 3 – SV Sandhausen 0 DFB Pokal

Oct 27, 2012 Schalke 04 1 – Nürnberg 0 Bundesliga

Oct 24, 2012 Arsenal 0 – Schalke 04 2 UCL

Oct 20, 2012 Borussia Dortmund 1 – Schalke 04 2 Bundesliga

Arsenal Last 5 fixtures –

L-W-W-L-L

Nov 3, 2012 Man Utd 2 – Arsenal 1 EPL

Oct 30, 2012 Reading 5 – Arsenal 7 League Cup

Oct 27, 2012 Arsenal 1 – QPR 0 EPL

Oct 24, 2012 Arsenal 0 – Schalke 04 2 UCL

Oct 20, 2012 Norwich City 1 – Arsenal 0 EPL

Predicted line-ups -

Schalke – (4-3-3)

                      Unnerstall
Howedes, Papadopoulos, Fuchs, Matip
            Jones,      Holtby,     Barnetta
Farfan,            Huntelaar,             Afellay

 

Arsenal – (4-2-3-1)

                         Mannone
Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Vermaelen
            Arteta ,                 Wilshere

Walcott,          Cazorla,            Podolski

                          Giroud

Key Battle –       

Farfan versus Vermaelen or Santos on the left would prove crucial, as the Peruvian has both pace and dribbling skills. But what exactly he does with the final ball, with Huntelaar waiting to pounce on any loose ball in the box, will directly affect the outcome of the match.

Prediction

Not an easy match for both teams, and the strong defenses should ensure a tight game. You can bet on Huntelaar scoring, with the Gunners’ best hope being Cazorla, who got on the sheet against United as well. The match might eventually end as a draw which would favor both teams in the end.

Schalke 1 – Arsenal 1

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