Wednesday, 2 November 2011

No goals, one point – too soon?

After the high drama of the Chelsea game, last night's tie felt rather flat. Having confidently predicted that Arsenal would dominate from the outset, the initial ten minutes were a little nervy. Marseille showed that they are a far better team than was evident from their previous meeting with the Gunners, and seized the initiative. Arsenal, conversely, started slowly. Wenger played a relatively unchanged team, although Vermaelen replaced Koscielny in defence and Jenkinson slotted in at right back, while most notably Park started in favour of RvP, who certainly merited a rest - presumably the reasoning behind his omission.

Unfortunately, we missed our mercurial number ten, and although Park was industrious throughout, covering lots of ground and attempting to play in the channels - indeed, he ran, ahem, all over the park - he didn't have any real chances on goal. The chances did fall to others, however, and both Ramsey and Gervinho had opportunities to open the scoring. Walcott also fizzed a shot across Steve Mandanda's goal midway through the first half, which the Marseille 'keeper just managed to turn past the post.

Although the game stayed goalless, it was far from cagey and not - despite what others would have you believe - dull. With both teams attempting to play quick attacking football and possession roughly evening out after early dominance from, surprisingly, the away side, there was more interest than is usual for these Champions League group games, and equally more than the nil-nil scoreline would suggest. Considering that most of the team had a mere 72 hours' R&R after the frantic pace of the Stamford Bridge game, it was perhaps inevitable that this tie would be a little underwhelming.

Even the introduction of van Persie failed to alter things in a fairly stale second half, although he had the golden chance to set the game alight. Alas his attempted lob over the goalkeeper was safely and gratefully clutched by Mandanda. Late on the Dutchman also sent in a decent cross that Vermaelen just failed to connect with after a rocket-powered diving header that saw him end up in the goal mouth.

The result was far from disastrous - as Wenger pointed out after the game, Arsenal have taken four points from their main rivals for top spot in Group F - but it was perhaps a missed opportunity and puts a little more pressure on the forthcoming Dortmund game.

Arsenal can still take positives from this match, however - most importantly, all the players came through unscathed, and the new signings continue to get better visibly with every game. For example, after looking out of his depth in his first couple of appearances Carl Jenkinson continues to improve fast. Moreover in their first ninety minutes together Vermaelen and Mertesacker showed signs that in time theirs could be an efficient centre-back pairing. Szczesny was a fairly safe pair of hands, and Santos - although probably the weakest defensive player in the team last night - still played his part in securing a clean sheet.

It was a shame that none of the Arsenal players managed to make that vital difference by getting on the score sheet, but equally no one can be accused of a poor display or a lack of effort; it just didn't happen on the night. If RvP had started he may well have nicked a goal, but gambling with his fitness by trying to play him all the time is risky and a van Persie burn-out would be disastrous at the moment. This salient point does highlight the fact that the Gunners are heavily reliant on a single striker, and we must have more confidence in the back-up forwards to produce the goods when called upon - although that is not an easy task, of course. After temporarily silencing his doubters with a fine strike against Bolton, Park will still be open to murmurs of criticism. I don't think, contrary to what some have been saying, that we have bought ourselves a dud - he holds the ball up well (I know, the traditional defence for a striker who doesn't score) but also shows signs that he will get goals once he becomes more familiar with his new team-mates. The Korean's club record at Monaco was pretty solid but not stellar, although his international record for South Korea is much better, but whether he will prove to be good enough in the two seasons he's got at Arsenal is at present debatable. Judging from recent performances it is doubtful whether Chamakh would have done any better had he been fit, although the fact that he wasn't makes that rather academic. The Moroccan still looks a far cry from the player who came straight into the team during a Robin van Persie injury lay-off and scored, I think, seven goals in his first fourteen appearances.

Somewhat ironically, in our current situation Champions League group games are fixtures for which players like Bendtner and Vela would have been ideal. Dearest Nicklas was clearly fed up and unwilling to remain a bit-part player at the club any longer, but whether sending young Carlos out on loan was the wisest thing to do given the fact that, like Steve Bould, the squad seems rather thin up top, is a question that is sure to be raised by many Gooners.

A point means that Arsenal retain their place at the summit of Group F, with further opportunities to secure qualification and a first place finish - although we must now ensure these opportunities (i.e. Borussia Dortmund at Emirates and the return against Olympiacos if necessary) are unequivocally taken. Nevertheless by keeping a clean sheet the team continues its unbeaten run. Time to focus on the league once again, with West Brom at home on Saturday, and dismiss this Champions League tie as a game that probably came just a bit too soon after the heroics against Chelsea.

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What do you think, Gooners?