Arsenal avoided major title challengers, but also avoided particularly "easy" opponents as they were drawn into Group B of the Champions League today, alongside Schalke 04, Olympiakos, and Montpellier. The group looks to be a challenge but will not be considered the season's "Group of Death" by any means.
In short, Arsenal will have to play well to win this group, but without a great team in the mix, if the Gunners fail to qualify for the knockout stages, it would really be a disappointing performance.
Here's the lineup of Group B, in order of the draw:
- Pot A: Arsenal
- Pot B: Schalke 04
- Pot C: Olympiakos
- Pot D: Montpellier
We'll go into this a bit more in coming days, but this is a good draw for Arsenal. Schalke finished third in last year's Bundesliga, 17 points behind bitter rivals Borussia Dortmund. Dutch striker Klass-Jan Huntelaar led the team (and league) with 29 goals, and he has managed not to issue any lame statements so far this summer, so he's still there. They're a good team, maybe the second-best in Pot B after Manchester City, but this was a lucky pick for reasons I'll get into momentarily.
Olympiakos are familiar foes, as they were drawn with Arsenal in last year's Champions League. Arsenal defeated the Greeks 2-1 in London, but lost 3-1 in a game Arsenal didn't need (as the group had already been won) in Piraeus. They were champions of the Greek league last season, finishing seven points clear of rival Panathinaikos. Kevin Mirallas led them in goals last season (and also the league: a theme?), but as he now plays for Everton, that doesn't matter much to us.
Finally, the reigning French champions, Montpellier. They were a shock in Ligue 1 last year, finishing three points clear of oil-soaked Paris Saint-Germain. They, of course, also lost their team goalscoring leader (and, again, the league leader) to a transfer. To Arsenal - it was Olivier Giroud. So he will get to return to his old club, where hopefully his reception won't be too icy.
The most important thing is that Arsenal avoided some dangerous clubs from pots 3 and 4, which will greatly ease the voyage to the knockout stage. Possible third-level opponents included PSG and Juventus, as well as lesser lights (but still tough outs) in Lille and Ajax. In pot 4, Arsenal could have drawn juggernaut Borussia Dortmund until Schalke were paired with us, or possibly Celtic or Malaga. Personally, I'd prefer Olympiakos and Montpellier to any of these opponents.
This draw is not easy. It's not really hard, either - certainly not as bad as Group D, starring the Real Madrid - Manchester City - Ajax - Borussia Dortmund flying death machine. It's good because it won't allow Arsenal to try to breeze through, but also is one we should win (or at least qualify from). It's similar to last year's, if not slightly easier. The things Arsenal would want to escape were escaped, so fans should breathe a sigh of relief - but not one of complacency.