A cagey match is likely in the cards Wednesday at the Emirates in London, where co-leaders Arsenal host Paris-Saint Germain with first place on the line in Group A of the Champions League.
Both the Gunners and Les Rouge-et-Bleu have secured passage into the round of 16 ahead of this fifth matchday, having grabbed 10 points to easily distance themselves from fellow group sides FC Basel and Ludogrets. The teams played to a 1-1 draw at Parc des Princes in September, with Alexis Sanchez’s goal on 78 minutes canceling out Edinson Cavani’s header 44 seconds into the contest.
“It’ll be a different game to the first one, because Arsenal are at home,” PSG manager Unai Emery told The Guardian on Sunday. “But I think the intensity will be similar. We could have won the first game, but a lot of things have changed since that game and I think our team is better now.”
Arsenal currently carry a superior goal difference over PSG – plus-9 to the French side’s plus-6, but a win in London for PSG could give them the inside track to finish atop the group since they finish at home versus Ludogorets while the Gunners must travel to Switzerland and face a Basel side well-versed in playing the role of spoilers.
Finishing atop the group could go a long way for Arsenal in their bid to avoid a sixth straight year of being eliminated in the round of 16 in the Champions League. The Gunners have finished runner-up in the group each of the last four years and have been bounced by Bayern Munich (2013-14), Monaco (2015) and Barcelona (2016).
Though Arsenal extended their unbeaten streak in all competitions to 17 matches, they had to rescue a draw Saturday at Manchester United. Olivier Giroud’s thunderous header in the 89th minute on a cross by Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain provided the point in a 1-1 draw as Gunners keeper Petr Cech noted his side escaped Old Trafford with a result despite not being at their best.
“Obviously we are not pleased with the performance but we have to take the point because we were losing and we equalized with three minutes to go,” he told Arsenal’s official website. “We had passages of the game where we had good possession but we were not dangerous … we basically created one chance and it went in so credit to Olivier that he came on and made a difference.”
“When you’re 1-0 down and you come back to 1-1 with one minute to go, it feels like more than a draw, that’s for sure,” manager Arsene Wenger said despite remaining winless against Jose Mourinho in 15 lifetime league and cup matches. “I hope it strengths the belief inside the squad that no matter what happens, we can always come back.”
Cech will give way to David Ospina, who has been Wenger’s No. 1 in Champions League play and rewarded his gaffer with two clean sheets in the four matches.
Giroud has four goals in nine appearances for the Gunners despite starting only once and logging 249 minutes in those matches. The French international netted the equaliser in Arsenal’s 3-2 win at Ludogorets on Nov. 1 in his only start and has 12 goals in 28 career Champions League appearances.
It’s possible Wenger may give Giroud a start here as a precaution to Sanchez’s health. The striker overcame a hamstring injury suffered while training with Chile for their World Cup qualifiers, started Wednesday against Uruguay and again Saturday despite arriving in London less than 48 hours prior to the match.
Sanchez has 12 goals in 44 Champions League appearances. Midfielder Mesut Ozil leads the Gunners with four goals in European play, but they all came against Ludogorets – highlighted by his hat trick in a 6-0 thrashing Oct. 19.
PSG have won four on the bounce, unbeaten in their last nine matches overall (8-1-0) and are third in Ligue 1 behind Monaco on goal difference and three points behind frontrunners Nice. Les Parisiens have conceded just one goal in their last six contests and are coming off a 2-0 victory over Nantes on Saturday.
Angel Di Maria scored inside the first quarter-hour before being forced off in the first half due to injury, and Jese salted away the three points by converting from the spot in the 90th minute for his first league goal with PSG. Despite dominating in possession, PSG were outshot 14-10, but they did put five of their efforts on target compared to Nantes’ two.
“We’re all united. The team defends and attacks together, and you saw that this evening,” central defender Presnel Kimpembe told the team’s official website. “It’s very good for our confidence not to have conceded goals. It was a little more difficult in the second half, but the most important thing is to have picked up the three points.”
Di Maria’s status is uncertain for this match, and the playmaker’s absence would leave a gaping hole in the midfield. Hatem Ben Arfa played nearly an hour Saturday after replacing Di Maria but has just nine minutes of Champions League action this season. Javier Pastore could also be in doubt after picking up a knock Saturday.
Cavani was held out of Saturday’s victory for this match, and the Uruguay international has four goals in as many Champions League appearances. He has 16 goals in his last 14 matches for club and country, including PSG’s marker versus Arsenal in September.
While PSG could be without Di Maria, Arsenal will be missing defender Hector Bellerin, who put an end to rumours about him moving in the January transfer window Monday by signing a six-and-a-half year extension with the London club. Bellerin is expected to be sidelined another three weeks with an ankle injury.
Only three players are in yellow card danger for this match – Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti for PSG and Frances Coquelin for Arsenal. Felix Brych will have the whistle and lead an all-German officiating crew.
Probable Lineups: Arsenal (4-2-3-1) – Ospina, Monreal, Koscielny, Mustafi, Jenkinson, Coquelin, Xhaka, Ramsey, Ozil, Walcott, Giroud. Paris-Saint Germain (4-3-3) – Trapp, Maxwell, Silva, Marquinhos, Aurier, Matuidi, Motta, Verratti, Jese, Cavani, Lucas.
Prediction: Draw, 1-1.