Football: Buoyant Arsenal seek winning start in tough group
MARSEILLE (AFP) - In-form Arsenal face Marseille on Wednesday wary of the need to hit the ground running in what was just about the toughest Champions League group they could have been given.
The Gunners have won their last five matches in all competitions, and sit in a lofty position at the top of the Premier League after Saturday's 3-1 win at Sunderland.
That sequence of results, combined with the feel-good factor generated by the arrival of record signing Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid, ensures that confidence is high in Arsene Wenger's squad just now, even if they continue to be plagued by injuries.
Santi Cazorla was the latest man to arrive in the treatment room, with an ankle problem ruling him out for the next few weeks, and the Spain star joins the likes of Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the sidelines.
The increasingly pivotal Olivier Giroud should be fit, however, despite picking up a knee knock in the win at Sunderland, and Wenger certainly hopes so after admitting that the France striker "is the player at the moment that would be very difficult to replace." A return to a ground he knows well from his days with Montpellier would be a special occasion for Giroud, as Arsenal seek to extend their record of never having lost away to a French club.
"I know Marseille very well, it is a big atmosphere there and an amazing crowd," Giroud told the Arsenal website.
"I am sure we will fight as we need a first win in the Champions League to start well. We need to be strong. Even though we have a lot of injuries, we have a lot of quality and we need to win this game." These clubs met in the group stage two years ago, an Aaron Ramsey goal in injury time securing a 1-0 win for Arsenal at the Stade Velodrome before the clubs drew 0-0 in London.
Amid all the talk about Ozil, who impressed on his debut at the weekend, Ramsey has been Arsenal's outstanding player in the opening weeks of this season.
The Welshman scored three times in the 5-0 play-off round win over Fenerbahce and was at it again on Saturday, netting a brace.
Nevertheless, it is the arrival of Ozil that has lifted the mood among Gunners fans and raised hopes that their team can progress from the group stage for a 14th consecutive campaign despite the presence of last season's runners-up Borussia Dortmund and a Napoli side to be taken seriously under Rafael Benitez.
Marseille started the Ligue 1 season with three consecutive wins but needed a late equaliser from Brazilian defender Lucas Mendes to come away from Toulouse with a point on Saturday.
While hoping to push fancied duo Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco all the way on the domestic front, there was an acceptance by coach Elie Baup as soon as the draw was made that his team were very much the outsiders in Group F.
"The other three teams are superior to us but we can be the surprise package," said Baup at the time.
Baup says hard work and an intensive pressing game will be the keys to unsettling Arsenal at a Stade Velodrome which will attract a crowd of around 45,000 despite remaining partially under construction.
Nevertheless, the 1993 European champions can boast considerable attacking potential with the likes of Mathieu Valbuena, Andre-Pierre Gignac and Dimitri Payet being joined by France under-20 World Cup winner Florian Thauvin, who completed a protracted transfer from Lille just before the deadline and will hope to make his home debut.
"He has trained a lot and run a lot but he has hardly played any games," said Baup of the talented Thauvin, who had previously been monitored by Arsenal and who made his first appearance for Marseille at Toulouse on Saturday.
"I know he is not yet ready but he needs to reacclimatise to playing competitive games."