With Arsenal finishing for a record sixteenth straight season in the top 4, the Champions League beckons once again. However this season we’re not guaranteed a place in the group stages. We first have to battle it out with another ‘non-champion’ team of European football in a two-legged play-off.
The good news for Arsenal is that as they’re a seeded team. Which means they won’t face the other four seeded teams in Olympique Lyon, AC Milan, Schalke 04 and Zenit St. Petersburg.
The bad news is the unseeded teams could all prove to be tricky opponents. The five teams we could possibly face for a place in the group stages include: PSV Eindhoven, Metalist Kharkiv, Fenerbahce, Real Sociedad and Pacos de Ferreira.
In this part, I will be previewing the three teams that would be considered the weaker teams out of the possible five The Gunners could face. (Teams ranked 1-5, 5 the weakest, 1 the strongest)
5. Pacos de Ferreira (Portugal)
Considered minnows in their native Portugal, Pacos surprised everybody this year by squeezing into 3rd spot and beating the likes of Sporting Lisbon along the way. The team play with a lot of heart but will be considered by the 5 seeded teams as the side they would rather face for qualification.
Strengths: Pacos have a strong midfield which works hard to protect the back four. They’ve only conceded 29 goals this season. With a strong core, they were able to lay the foundations down to play a slick passing game that has caught the eye of the Portuguese public.
Weknesses: This area would have to be their finishing in the final third. With only 42 goals scored this season, Pacos aren’t considered the most efficient team in front of goal and this shows as their top scorer finished with only 9 goals. Another down side to Porto District’s team is the fact that their record in European competition isn’t rather great. Bowing out of the UEFA Cup 1st Round in 2007/08 and failing in the 3rd qualifying round of the Europa League in 2009/10.
Star Man: In his first season with Pacos, the man to watch for them is definitely the Peruvian international winger, Paulo Hurtado. At only 22, this exciting prospect has scored 5 goals in 15 league games and with the pace to match Theo Walcott, he could well prove to be a thorn in the Arsenal defence.
4. Metalist Kharkiv (Ukraine)
Runners up in the Ukranian league to a strong Shakhtar Donetsk, Metalist have qualified to take part in their 7th European competition in a row. Metalist’s highest achievement in European football is reaching the Europa League quarter final, where they were narrowly edged out by Benfica over 2 legs.
Strengths: Have been strong in the Europa League and pushed Newcastle all the way to edge in the round of 32. A typically solid and imposing Ukrainian side, Metalist pride themselves on their defence and have only shipped 25 goals this season. Although a physical team, the Kharkiv side have the ability to turn on the flair when needed, with multiple attacking threats from their Brazilian contingent, as we saw when they defeated Bayer Leverkusen 2-0 in November.
Weaknesses: Metalist have no experience in the Champions League which will prove to be a challenging aspect. Also, the fact that they seem to buckle under pressure, as seen against Newcastle and in the Ukrainian legaue, when they’re asked to step up and perform and take 1st from Shakhtar, they seem to fall short, as they’ve only taken a single point from their Donetsk rivals. It appears as though big games could prove to be a problem.
Starman: Attacking midfielder Cleiton Xavier. The Brazilian was the leading goal scorer for Metalist, in both the Ukraine and Europa League. His ability to pull something out of nothing makes Xavier a dangerous and unpredictable player. Similar player to that of Lazio’s Hernanes, expect the unexpected with this talented maestro.
3. PSV Eindhoven (Holland)
One of the giants of the Dutch Eredivisie, PSV have a rich history in all European competitions and have large expectations to perform at a high level. Reached the round of 16 last season of the Europa League before being knocked out by Valencia. The Eindhoven outfit have featured 23 times in the Champions League, as well as winning it in in the 1987/88 season. Finished 2nd in the Eredivisie this season, behind Amsterdam juggernauts Ajax.
Strengths: Undoubtedly the ability to score goals, and lots of them! The Eredivisie’s leading team for goals scored with 103, PSV have an average of over 3 goals a game. An incredible stat in modern football. The team play attacking football, which is easy on the eye and pride themselves on efficient counter-attacking.
Weknesses: With PSV’s, success comes interest from other clubs for their best players. It’s hard to say who will still be around for next season. Their midfield stronghold of Mark Van Bommel (retiring) and Kevin Strootman (constantly linked with a move to the Premier League) is in danger of crumbling. Worst still 2nd top goalscorer for the club, Jermaine Lens, wants a move to England. Moral will be at an all time low if all these players depart and could really harm their chances of progressing through to the group stages.
Star Man: Leading goal scorer, Dries Mertens has set the Eredivisie on fire this season with 16 goals and draws constant attention from bigger clubs. A player to watch with a deadly strike, the Belgian international will be looking to fire PSV into the group stages of the prestigious competition.
Stay glued to Goonerhead.com for tomorrow’s Part 2 of the breakdown of Arsenal’s possible opponents in UCL qualifying round.