Group Stage Prospects
Although the other names in Group H may jog a few memories, one comparison with the other Champions League groups will tell neutrals and Gooners alike what to expect.
They could easily have been sharing a group with the likes of Real Madrid and Ajax, but instead will be facing off against opposition who have proven themselves dangerous only in the Europa League.
Arsenal have never won the Champions League in their history, but judging by the group draw, they’ll seldom have a better opportunity…
Their Opponents (H & A dates ):
SPORTING BRAGA (15th September / 23rd November)
The club who stole Arsenal’s design and (to an extent) identity are the favourites of many neutrals to be the team who will pip Arsenal to top spot should things go badly wrong for the Gunners.
Since 2005, Braga have qualified for European competition every season without fail and showed improvements each time. They won the last ever Intertoto Cup competition, and reached the European Quarter Finals for the first time last season.
Although they are still a long way off challenging Portugal’s “Big Three”, Braga managed a best ever second place finish in the 2009-10 season. They also battered a strong Portsmouth side 3-0 the previous year. Although Braga lack any real standout names, they will be a major European player in the years to come. Watch this space…
European Best: Quarter Final (Europa League 2009-10)
Danger Man: Alberto Rodriguez
Arsenal will no doubt hope to rack up some ridiculous scores at The Emirates, but this stocky Peruvian powerhouse may yet have his say in the matter. Rodriguez began his career as a youth with Deportivo Wanka (stop laughing at the back!) before Premier League giants Sporting Cristal eventually came for him.
With his new team, Rodriguez went from strength to strength, making 155 solid appearances and 10 goals to boot. After his transfer to Braga in December 2006, Rodriguez eased his way into the first team, contributing to their much improved recent league finishes.
PARTIZAN BELGRADE (28th September / 8th December)
The rank outsiders of Group H are supposedly matched in their credentials for youth development only by Ajax’s school of “Total Football”, yet the Serbian heavyweights have yet to make a true impression on Europe’s top tier in the 21st century.
Their last Champions League appearance was in the 2003-04 season, remaining impressively unbeaten at home with three draws against Real Madrid, FC Porto and Marseille.
While their three away defeats put paid to any hopes of progress, they did well in the UEFA Cup the following season, reaching the Round of 16 before their elimination at the hands of winners CSKA Moscow.
The open air Stadion FK Partizan will no doubt be an intimidating spectacle with passionate fans and a gladiatorial setting – it could at a push be their saving grace, even if they do settle for 3rd place and the Europa League.
European Best: Runners Up (European Cup 1965-66)
Danger Man: Mladen Krstajic
An aging athlete, but as far as defence is concerned, this man is as tough as they come. Nearly snatched by the enemy Red Star Belgrade, he opted to join Partizan in 1996, winning three league titles and one domestic cup within the following years.
The new millenium heralded a move to the Bundesliga with Werder Bremen, whereupon his performances helped Bremen achieve a cup double in 2004. His European pedigree was furthered by a move to fellow contenders FC Schalke, for whom he featured regularly, becoming the team captain in 2009.
Even more remarkably, he led a defensive lineup for Serbia which conceded only a single goal in ten qualifying games for the 2006 World Cup.
SHAKHTAR DONETSK (19th October / 3rd November)
Civil opinion and discussion are much appreciated in any walk of life, and would be particularly welcome in the instance that the 2008-09 UEFA Cup Winners are your humble author’s pick to qualify in second spot.
The Donbass Arena is one of the most impressive spectacles to be seen, and in terms of atmosphere, will no doubt rival the likes of the similarly designed Fenerbahce’s Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium and Barcelona’s Nou Camp. With their home campaign in the group stage assured to be strong, the scene is set for some very attractive away ties which will be infinitely more difficult to negotiate.
However, the Ukrainian heavyweights have shown the ability to grind out results, and in the battle for a runners-up spot, the stoicism to stand and fight when all adversity is against a team makes all the difference. Judging by their recent performances in European competition, Shakhtar have such battling qualities in abundance.
European Best: Winners (UEFA Cup 2008-09)
Danger Man: Eduardo
The ex-Gunner will return to North London with a reasonable reception, and although he has previously stated how daunting the prospect of a trip to Arsenal is, no one can resist that Champions League theme tune belted out while safe in the knowledge of Arsenal’s skilful, yet occasionally predictable tactics.
Although it is doubtful that such tactical knowledge will make the difference, Eduardo’s experience at the top level will no doubt pay dividends when it comes to making genuine progress in the competition. His partnership up front with Luiz Adriano is also a prospect which will no doubt have many neutrals slavering at the bit.
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