……….Is qualifying for the Champions League last sixteen from a cupcake group…At least if you are Arsenal FC, that is. I did not enjoy this evening’s match – not one bit. In fact, I commented after the final whistle that I cannot recall being so angry after a match in which we won. Fortunately, I did not sit down to write a match report then and there. Instead, I went about other things, and when I sat down at my home computer a few hours later, my perspective had evolved enough to bang out something with a more balanced view of the picture.
My emotions during and immediately after the match were borne almost entirely out of frustration that we have contrived to make such a mess of qualifying out of such a weak group. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that we were drawn with perhaps the two worst sides to ever (dis)grace this competition, in Braga and FK Partizan. And nothing I saw of Shakhtar Donetsk over two ties has convinced me that they are anything other than an ordinary Eastern European side waiting to get picked off – with their vaunted “home advantage” – by a lesser seed in the next round.
We were truly our own worst enemies from matchday four onwards, with a casual “no big deal” effort in Donetsk, and then a negative, cowardly effort in Braga. It was almost comical that after getting 9 points – and scoring 14 goals – from our first three fixtures, we went into the final fixture facing still needing a result (or Braga loss at Donetsk) to qualify. This after the three other English teams – Chelsea, Man United, and…yes…the Spuddies – had all taken care of business and secured qualification by the end of matchday five. Fortunately for us, we were facing the worst of the worst – FK Partizan – at home. Zero points and only a single goal scored (no prizes for guessing who that was against) from the previous five matches told its own story. Surely we could not mess this one up…Could we?
I frowned when I saw the team sheet, with Song and Denilson starting together. I do not think that we play especially well with these two together, and I have the impression that Denilson is often included to accommodate Song’s forays forward. Arsene is going to do what Arsene is going to do, but I would prefer that Song stay as the defensive midfielder, and someone else get forward – Jack particularly. I suppose Arsene wanted to avoid using Jack – who was named to the bench – ahead of Monday night at Old Trafford, so I understand his apparent reasoning. Plus I thought Song had a pretty decent game, so I think Arsene got this one right tonight, and I am making something out of nothing here.
Regardless of who started, the team began nervously, I thought. We hogged possession, and moved the ball around, but too many passes went amiss, and we did not carve out any real chances early on. Partizan were happy to let us have the ball, as they packed their defence and challenged us to find a way through. We certainly played at a slower pace than normal – almost as if we were afraid of getting too far ahead of ourselves, losing possession and getting hit with yet another sucker-punch goal (see minute 52).
The pressure told on us, and the nerves were there for all to see. Our first problem arrived on 15 minutes, when Kieran Gibbs did his ankle yet again. He was stretchered off, and then tried to play on, but clearly could not continue. With Clichy unavailable through an apparent illness, we had to bring Eboue on; I hope that Gibbs will not have another injury-enforced layoff, but his (injury) history does not inspire confidence.
Nevertheless, Partizan did not take advantage of our defensive weakness down the left, and with half an hour gone, we finally made the breakthrough. Song – in an advanced position – was there to get on the end of a ball into the Partizan area. He crossed it directly off a Partizan defender, and Robin latched on to the deflected ball. As he moved the ball across the area, heading away from goal, Jovanovic stupidly tripped him for a clear penalty. Robin picked himself up and blasted an unstoppable shot down the middle. Robin’s first goal of the season and first European goal for over 12 months. I really hoped he would get one from open play tonight, but it wasn’t to be.
We should have had a second goal just before the interval when Robin played Chamakh in, but the latter hesitated and the chance was lost.
So 1-0 at the half and with Braga doing nothing at Donetsk, we were halfway to qualification. We came out with more purpose at the start of the second half, and we had two excellent chances in quick succession in the first five minutes. First Chamakh (who had a poor all around game, in my opinion) was again slow to react and had a tame shot saved. Then Nasri controlled a nice cross from Denilson, only to shoot over the bar from inside the area. It only took a couple of minutes for us to pay. Ilic sent an angled ball forward, Koscielny stepped up to intercept, missed, and the ball found Cleo free on the edge of the area. His shot deflected off a backpedalling Squillaci and looped over Fabianski. Predictably, that was Partizan’s first shot on goal, and another example of the shambolic nobody-knows-what-the-other-guy-is-doing defending we see all too often these days. So, from looking comfortable, we were back level, and a single Braga goal could have potentially sent us crashing into the Europa Cup.
For a few minutes, Partizan had the initiative, and we were all over the place, as we often are after conceding a goal out of nothing. Fortunately for us, Partizan are who they are, and we were gradually able to reassert ourselves. Theo came on for the ineffective Arshavin around the 65th minute. In the 70th minute, Robin crashed in a free kick that the Partizan keeper had to tip over the bar. Three minutes later, we finally moved back in front. Jovanovic – who had given away the penalty Robin converted – headed a long ball directly into Theo’s path, which the latter instantly controlled and rifled a right footed volley into the far corner. Good goal, but not quite enough to settle the nerves. This was evidenced by Fabianski’s shanked clearance just over a minute later – it reminded me of Steve Weatherford’s shanked punt for the New York Jets in the Monday night game at Foxboro earlier this week. That punt traveled all of twelve yards and Tom Brady was only too happy to jam it down the Jets’ throat. Fortunately, we were facing Partizan – not the Patriots – and Fabianski was able to get away with it.
Just over a minute later, we got a bit of breathing room. Song and Bendtner (who literally just replaced Chamakh) played a great give and go, with the former feeding Nasri, who shot under the keeper. By this point, Shakhtar were 2-0 up on Braga, so qualification was all but secured. There was still time for a bit of calamity, with Sagna bringing Lazevski down on the edge of the box, for a straight red (deemed the “last man”). Fortunately, Fabianski made a fine save from the resulting free kick. There was still time for us – with ten men – to create a couple of breakaway chances that we contrived to waste. No matter, as Partizan did not threaten and we held on comfortably.
In the end, we made it to the next round, so perhaps this is all a big deal over nothing? Not quite – I agree the result was the most important thing, but I also maintain that it should never have come to this, considering the low quality of our group’s opposition. Earlier in the day, I said (on the blog) that if I could give one piece of advice to Arsene, it would be to win this one tonight, and worry about looking pretty next time. It seems to me that is exactly what we did, so I think I need to do a better job of following my own advice. We also wasted an opportunity to put in a fluid, confidence building performance, and yet again, failed to keep a clean sheet – against a team incapable of scoring against anyone else! Not every game will be a dominant, controlled demolition, but we have had none of those lately, and if there was ever a side ripe for a hammering at our place, it was Partizan. But due to the position we put ourselves in, we were too tense and inhibited to have a real go at them.
We got the result, but the performance was certainly nothing to be proud of. In fact, I will go further and say that qualifying – as runners-up – from this cupcake group is nothing to be proud of either. After all our experience in this competition, this should not be considered an achievement, rather the minimum expectation. Unfortunately, too many at Arsenal – perhaps even Arsene – took it for granted following matchday three. Hopefully an important lesson was learned through this experience.
Still, as the saying goes, “You have to be in it to win it”, and we are certainly still alive. Arsene was bullish after the match, maintaining that we do not fear anyone. Nor should we. But the reverse most likely applies as well – four clubs licking their chops at the prospect of drawing us in the next round. I don’t think anyone will be afraid of facing us, on the evidence of matchdays four through six.
But…Some of this may well work to our advantage. For one, the next tie does not happen until early February, and a lot can happen between now and then – both for us and our potential opponents. We may, just may, find that elusive consistent form, start keeping clean sheets, and line up in February with a full strength squad – minus Sagna, of course, who will be suspended for his straight red. Similarly, our opponents may lose their respective form, and have injuries and domestic league issues to deal with.
I also have a sneaking suspicion that the nature of the next tie may work in our favor. We will be drawn home first, then away, in a knockout format. The sense of urgency should already be there, and I think it will help us. Not the tension we saw tonight over the prospect of failure to qualify, but the purpose and motivation that comes from knowing we have to give everything from the go in order to progress.
We’ll know our next opponents on Friday. As runners-up, we will draw one of the eight group winners: we cannot face four of them – Shakhtar (from our own group), Chelsea, Man United, and Spuds (!!) (all from England). That leaves Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Schalke 04. None of them are easy – the two German sides are both stuttering in Bundesliga play, but have been quite impressive in the CL this season. Schalke may look like the easiest match on paper – and perhaps they are, compared to the others. But there is a difference between being easy compared to other teams, and being an easy tie. I assure you they will be anything but the latter. If we draw them, we will be able to get a first-hand look at Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who many think we should have tried to sign this summer. Not that Schalke – who are going all out to try and win the Bundesliga and European Cup – would consider selling at this time. When they eventually do sell him, it will most likely be to Bayern anyways.
I have a sneaking suspicion we will draw Real Madrid. We will start as huge underdogs against them or Barcelona, and rightfully so. But much will depend on our – and our respective opponent’s form – leading up to the ties. It will be tough, but not impossible.
If nothing else, we can relax for the moment regarding the Champions League, put it on the back burner until the new year, and look ahead to domestic business. With this tie in the books, now it’s time to focus on our Monday night visit to Old Trafford. I doubt United will be scared by anything they saw tonight, but they have not been any great shakes themselves, and our Arsenal side should have nothing to fear from them. Our league away form has been generally excellent, and we bring something on our domestic travels that cannot seem to consistently find at home – focus, determination, and grit. We will need all of those elements in abundance to win on Monday, but we can do it. Gibbs seems certain to miss out, and I don’t expect Cesc or TV to feature, but hopefully everyone else – including, perhaps, the missing-but-not-necessarily-lamented Vassirki “Abou” Diaby – will be fit and available for the trip.
We may not be happy with our general play…We are certainly not happy with our defence…And many of us are not at all happy with Arsene. But, somehow…We are on top of our domestic league…We are in the last sixteen of the European Cup…We are in the last four of the League Cup…Are things really so bad? Admittedly, our form, fitness and defensive problems can put us in crisis in the proverbial blink of an eye. But some of these elements can also propel us much further than we sit now.
I am frustrated with a lot of things – mostly tactics and style of play – and I need to consciously tell myself to slow down and look at where we are at the moment. When I do that, things are not nearly as bad as I am trying to convince myself they are. Let’s sit back and see what our team can do for the next few weeks.
We may…Just may…Be pleasantly surprised by what we see…
Written by Oliver