It is with little fanfare that our Champions League campaign kicks off this season, which is somewhat misguided since tonight’s match is perhaps the toughest in the group.
And as Standard Liege’s first foray into the competition, everyone connected with the club – players and fans alike – will be up for this one like no other. We have to be prepared. The danger of an easy draw is that you believe yourself to be through before you even set foot on the pitch.
The notion of complacency should be erased by the injury factor – with Almunia out with a virus and Fabianski still struggling with a knee injury, Vito Mannone will make his Champions League bow in only his second start for the club. So far, he has looked exceptionally raw, which can be forgiven in such a young goalkeeper, but in a high profile match like this he cannot afford to encourage the opposition on. They will come out firing anyway.
His is not the only injury – Denilson and Van Persie haven’t travelled, joining Nasri, Vela, Walcott, Arshavin and Djourou on the sidelines, which leaves us a little exposed (not to mention thankful that Eduardo’s ban was overturned).
But to say we’re the only team suffering with injuries would be untrue – Liege lost their captain and best player, Steven Defour, at the weekend with a broken ankle – a massive blow to them, while vice-captain de Camargo and key midfielder Dalmat may also be missing. That leaves them exceptionally light on the creative front, where much of the focus will be on Jovanovic, their Serbian striker with a very healthy scoring record in the Belgian league.
And while we’re missing our main free kick threat, they aren’t missing theirs – Jovanovic strikes a mean dead ball, so we can’t afford to give him too many chances.
The other player in focus is Axel Witsel. Recognise the name? That’ll be because he recently hit the headlines for a ‘tackle’ that makes Martin Taylor’s look like a simple trip. It was vicious beyond belief (Google it if you’ve got a strong stomach), and destroyed the leg of Anderlecht’s Marcin Wasilewski, who is now fighting for his career. Witsel was given an eleven game ban, reduced to eight on appeal, but it applies only to domestic football, so he is free to play tonight.
And he is rusty. Watch your legs boys.
Standard Liege hold a special place for me, as they feature on my ‘One Nil to the Arsenal’ video, charting the Cup Winners Cup campaign back in 93-94, which ended with that glorious night in Copenhagen. That year, we hammered them 10-0 on aggregate, with a 7-0 win in the second leg in Liege. Even the likes of Ian Selley and Eddie McGoldrick got on the scoresheet that day. Something tells me tonight will be trickier.
As for a prediction, I’m expecting a slow start to our campaign, especially given the injuries, but I’m thinking we’ll leave with a narrow 2-1 win.
Enjoy the game.