Montpellier. Lorient. Bordeaux. Marseille. Nice. Rennes. Ah, such wonderful names to hear. No, I ain’t going to France on holiday, but I was just pondering, where a confused tourist would want to visit. Would he visit the places that sound really classy and shall we say, ‘not-so-intimidating’, or would he visit, some place like Sunderland, or Mordor, or Blackpool, or probably even Blackburn. A pretty interesting thought, ain’t it.
Speaking of intimidating, while the names may not sound too intimidating, the fans that support French clubs do create intimidating atmospheres in European games. We all know how noisy the Stade Velodrome can get on European nights, and Lyon was considered a very hard place to go a few years back.
Tonight, Arsenal face a completely new challenge, which is Montpellier. Now, let’s be honest, and say, a year back, we barely knew about this team, from sunny southern France. But, over a year, Montpellier have defied all the heavy odds stacked against them, to win the French Ligue 1, against stiff competition like ultra rich Paris Saint-Germain, defending champions Lille and Lyon, to be the 5th different team to win the league in as many seasons.
And to add to the gloss of being the league champions, is the fact that the club’s annual budget is only £29 million, even lesser than the £37 million that PSG spent entirely on just one player, Javier Pastore. More astounding is the fact that PSG have continued spending like crazy, with an outlay of £117 million this season, compared to Montpellier, who have lost their top scorer Olivier Giroud to us for £12 million, and had their other star players like captain Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and attacking midfielder Younes Belhanda, so highly rated by Zinedine Zidane, being courted by top clubs in Europe.
Other names that may strike you are former Porsmouth winger John Utaka, and Senegalese striker Souleymane Camara. So, in short, Montpellier in no way can be taken lightly.
They haven’t had the best start to their campaign in defence of their league title, having lost 3, drawing 1, and winning only 1 out of their opening 5 fixtures. The outspoken and brash Montpellier president Louis Nicollin, (also possesses a horrendous orange and blue hairstyle) has urged the fans to create a hellish atmosphere at the game.
He has even gone on to say some of the choicest words for former star Olivier Giroud, who will be returning back tonight.
It doesn’t really mean much to me. I saw that he scored 6 goals at the weekend. Oh, it wasn’t him? He must have at least scored 2 or 3, no? I didn’t really pay any attention. Oh right, he was on the bench? When a player leaves the club, I don’t follow what he does. I do really like Olivier though. If Arsenal want to loan him back to us, we’d take him back.
Even the Montpellier skipper Yanga-Mbiwa has gone on to say he won’t allow Olivier Giroud to score tonight. Probably, all part of unnerving Giroud, who has been under tremendous pressure to score his first goal at the club.
Interestingly, while the talk of him was to follow in the footsteps of Ian Wright, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Lord Robin van Persie by scoring his first goal against the Saints, another interesting fact you may want to know is, Thierry Henry opened his Arsenal on this very day, 13 years ago. So, there you go.
As I said, mood in the Montpellier camp doesn’t seem too positive, post their 3-1 defeat to newly promoted Stade de Reims. Younes Belhanda has come out and said,
If we play like that against Arsenal, we’ll concede eight goals.
Team news, then. After his goalkeeping howler over the weekend against Southampton, Wojciech Szczesny was in the centre of a heated internet debate as to who should be first choice goalkeeper, with Don Vito Mannone having proved himself against Stoke and Liverpool.
Mannone will get another chance tonight, after Szczesny has been ruled out of the game with a reported ankle injury. The manager will get some chances to rotate around with the squad, with one eye on the important clash over the weekend, Manchester City at the Etihad.
Laurent Koscielny, who played only a few minutes against Liverpool, should start today alongside Thomas Vermaelen, with Per Mertesacker getting some rest. The problem is quite complex, yet a pleasant one to have at the same. While Per Mertesacker has shown tremendous improvement so far this season, and proven why his experience at the highest level is so vital, Laurent Koscielny was by far the best defender in the team last season.
His work rate, tackling, interceptions all stood out, as he remained an ever present in a defence, that was hit by injuries throughout the campaign. Thomas Vermaelen, despite having played all the games so far, including both the international games, going by common sense, should get some rest, but he is the captain, which means dropping him is not an option.
I cannot recall the last time we had 3 world class fit centre-backs, at our disposal, all at the same time. Sticking with the defence, also expected to be given a rest is Kieran Gibbs, who will be replaced by Andre Santos, fresh having not played a game so far this season.
There’s plenty of positive news regarding injuries. Jack Wilshere has resumed training with the first team squad, and probably a few games in the reserves, and he should be fit enough to make his first Arsenal appearance in a year. Tomas Rosicky, Bacary Sagna and Emmanuel Frimpong, also are close to fitness.
Abou Diaby, who was rested as a caution against Southampton is fit, but I would expect to see Aaron Ramsey being given a start. He has had 4 very promising cameos, and I would like to see him link up between Arteta and Cazorla. How this would affect out game play would be very intriguing to look at. That said, it could yet be Francis Coquelin who is given the nod ahead. Let’s wait and watch.
Up front, rumours that Theo Walcott is still unsettled over contract issues, could still keep him out for some more time. Not playing him often may escalate the situation even more. The manager has said that should Walcott not sign a new contract by April, it will be tough to keep him at the club after next summer.
He was also cautious about starting Giroud today, though I think the French striker will get to start tonight.
What I will do on Tuesday, I honestly don’t know, I felt that he is under much pressure at the moment and sometimes to get a little breather is good.
Here’s how I think the teams will line up.
To be very frank, I do not know much about Montpellier, or their system. This is the squad that is most expected to start tonight. We all know how good Yanga-Mbiwa is, and he will be partnered by former Marseille defender Hilton. Left-back Henri Bedimo is considered to be one of the best left-backs in the French Ligue. He is a doubt for the game, but is expected to start tonight.
Montpellier usually prefer playing two up front in league games, but are expected to revert to one up front, and two support strikers, much like Arsenal’s system. Much attacking onus will be on the young shoulders of Morrocan international Belhanda, who scored 13 and created 5 more last season. John Utaka is sidelined, which means the pace Karim Ait-Fana will start.
All in all, we can expect a good battle, and it would be great if we could start off with an away win in Europe.
Jai Arsenal 🙂
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