Thursday, 29 September 2011

Gunners good enough against Greeks

I must admit that I raised an eyebrow on seeing Arsene Wenger’s line-up against Olympiacos last night. Presumably worried about the ability of Ramsey and RvP to play three games in eight days, and perhaps with one eye on the Tottenham game on Sunday, he elected to leave both players on the bench, giving starts to Chamakh and Chamberlain in their place. Evidently Wenger had no such concerns about Alex Song’s stamina, or rather, he had no choice, given the paucity of defensive players currently available.

Although conceivably a risky strategy, initially the somewhat unfamiliar line-up didn’t seem to be a problem at all, as the Gunners raced into a 2-0 first half lead thanks to goals from two new signings – Chamberlain and Santos. The two-goal cushion lasted for just seven minutes but fortunately Szczesny played superbly throughout, and was rightly furious with his defence when Olympiacos pulled a goal back through a free header from a short corner. Arsenal were caught not just napping, but in a complete stupor – how many goals must we concede from set pieces before we wake up and start marking up properly in the box? The zonal system again showed how difficult it is to implement properly.

Arsenal managed to hold on for the rest of the first half and through the second as the game gradually became less frenetic, although exactly how they did so was difficult to explain sometimes. Olympiacos exposed our full-backs time and time again, putting plenty of balls into the box for Arsenal to deal with. With some height in the middle in the form of Mertesacker and Song they coped better than we are used to, but there were still some tense moments. On the plus side, without managing a third goal to kill off the game, Arsenal did some good work creatively to relieve the Olympiacos pressure, at least temporarily. Arteta again showed signs that he will be an instrumental player this season and made a vital clearance off the line midway through the first half. Song was similarly composed and dealt well with the demands of his daunting defensive role. Chamberlain also scored an excellent goal, one which made him the youngest English player ever to score in the Champions League.

With Wenger still consigned to the stands, it was up to Pat Rice to direct the team from the touchline, and admittedly he used his substitutions well by bringing on Ramsey to shore up the midfield and break up play, RvP to try and put the Greeks on the back foot, and ultimately Gibbs to add security to the left flank.

A collective sigh of relief reverberated around the Emirates when the final whistle went. This result was a third consecutive win for the Gunners, and furthermore made us the only Premier League team to win in the Champions League this week. It was an awkward evening that was much less comfortable than it should have been, but nevertheless Arsenal got the result.

Elsewhere in Group F Marseille beat Borussia Dortmund 3-0, a surprising scoreline that flattered the home team, judging from ITV’s evening highlights. That puts Marseille top of the group with 6 points, making Arsenal’s game at the Stade Velodrome in three weeks time a very important fixture indeed.

In the more immediate future, we can look ahead to a North London derby with a certain degree of apprehension. Given his theatrics for City in the past, Adebayor is undoubtedly relishing the chance to play at the weekend and we can be fairly sure that Szczesny will be called into action more than once on Sunday. However there is only so much he can do as long as he plays behind what seems to be an ever-rotating selection of faces rather than a back four made up of the same four players. Hopefully Koscielny, Gervinho and Walcott will all have shaken off their injuries to be fit for the game. It looks a big ask to win at White Hart Lane in our current state, but a loss to Tottenham would really stick in Arsenal fans’ throats. Still, the derby is nothing if not unpredictable, and our forwards do at least seem to be capable of scoring goals, with eleven in the last four games.

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