After what feels like an eternity, we were back into Champions League action, with our home tie versus Bundesliga title-holders Borussia Dortmund. We opened this group phase with a credible 1-1 on their ground back in mid-September, and going one better would send us into the knockout stages, with the possibility of winning the group outright very much on.
Anything other than a win would send us to Piraeus on the final matchday needing a win just to be sure.
So if we needed to take care of business at home last night and the task ahead was not in any way going to be easy!
Both of us won at the weekend but Dortmund notched the more significant win, against a far stronger opponent than we faced at Carrow Road. Dortmund’s defensive display at Bayern was excellent, and this allowed Goetze to take virtually their only chance over 90 minutes, for a 1-0 away win over the current Bundesliga leaders.
In many ways, their season has mirrored ours so far. Both teams had slow starts, and both have really picked up in the past month-and-a-half. One major difference is that Dortmund’s run has catapulted them up the table, to within two points of the summit.
Despite the fact that we keep winning, we cannot seem to move out of seventh place. Dortmund is clearly a much better side than the one we faced two-plus months ago but we too are much improved from the one we fielded that evening…
In his Tuesday press conference, Arsene revealed that Rosicky sustained a thigh strain in training and would miss out against his former club. The other big news was Abou Diaby’s return to the squad after his latest prolonged absence through injury.
While Arsene did not outright say that Diaby would be in the squad tonight, most of us expected it based on the point our manager made about the player being ahead of schedule and it being “good to have him back”…
So we lined up Szczesny, Santos, Mert, TV, Kos, Song, Arteta, Ramsey, Gerv, Robin, and Theo.
Fab, JD, Frim, Diaby, Benny, Arsh, and Chamakh formed our bench.
Dortmund kicked the first half off and set about pressuring us, denying both space and time. Kagawa tried an early shot, but Szczesny gathered without too much trouble. Santos created our first chance about ten minutes in, crossing for Robin, who could not get enough power or direction on his header. Weidenfeller saved it comfortably.
The game started to open up a bit from there, Mert came up for a corner and got to the ball but couldn’t head it on target. We forced another quick corner and Robin put a good delivery in but Dortmund was able to clear.
Then Theo latched on to Ramsey’s pass, but Weidenfeller came out quickly to block the shot.
We had an injury stoppage about 25 minutes in. Bender went down hard after a collision with TV, the former catching an inadvertent boot. The Dortmund man was stretchered off in a neck brace to polite applause from both sets of supporters. This forced Klopp into an early, emergency substitution, with Leitner coming on.
Play resumed, and Lewandowski shot wide.
They say good (or bad) news comes in bunches. Just before the half hour mark, Goetze pulled up and needed to come off, Perisic replacing him, so that made two early substitutions for Klopp prior to the half hour mark. While Goetze’s departure was definitely a plus for us, it is worth noting that his replacement is the player who scored Dortmund’s late equalizer in the earlier tie.
As we entered the final third of the first half, the pattern continued as before. Dortmund pressed and closed down quickly, with neither side creating many chances. With five minutes remaining, we suddenly sprang to life, as Robin played Theo in and the latter fired the ball into the net. Unfortunately, Theo was just offside when the ball was played, so the decision was correct.
A minute before the interval, we had the best opportunity to open the scoring. Just after Schmelzer shot straight at Szczesny from a good position, Theo turned (almost) creator, putting a fine cross towards Robin. Weidenfeller cut it out, but could only push the ball into no-man’s land, but there was no red shirt on hand to turn the loose ball in.
We played through three uneventful minutes of stoppage time and went into the break all square. On the whole, I thought Dortmund looked the better side but we came alive as the half wound down and had the better chances to take the lead.
We kicked the second half off with no changes to our starting eleven.
It was Dortmund who started quicker, as a Grosskreutz cross was deflected across the face of our goal, before Mert put it out for a corner. A minute later, Kagawa went through down the left, and forced Szczesny into a difficult save.
Just as it looked as though Dortmund would over-run us, we hit back. While Robin – yet again – finished the move, Song deserves huge credit for creating the opportunity. With little on down the left, he took the ball, beat three yellow shirts and crossed for Robin to head past the diving Weidenfeller. 1-0 and one foot into the knockout round.
With a precious lead, the last thing we needed to do was sit back on it. Schmelzer earned the first booking for a foul on Theo as we looked to increase the lead. As the match moved past the hour mark, our passing game looked in rhythm, as we kept the ball much better than earlier and moved it about crisply.
Right on 60, Gerv should have doubled our lead when Robin’s perfectly-timed pass put him in alone on Weidenfeller. Unfortunately, Gerv hesitated after rounding the keeper and Hummels was able to get back and clear. That really should really have been two…
A few minutes later, Theo earned a rather silly booking for getting into it with Schmelzer…
With 25 minutes remaining, Klopp made his only remaining sub, bringing Barrios (striker) on for Captain Kehl. A 1-0 defeat would not do them much good, so he had to roll the dice. For us, it would an opportunity to try and hit them on the break. Barrios immediately won a corner, which came to nothing when Mert was fouled in our box.
Ramsey then picked Theo out with a fine pass, but the latter shot over the bar. Theo then put a good defensive shift in, winning the ball from Piszczek, and starting a move which ended with Robin flagged for offside.
Arsene made the first change with 15 minutes to go, Benny replacing the disappointing Gerv. Santos then fouled Kagawa to concede a free kick and Ramsey was foolishly booked for kicking the ball away. I say foolish on the referee’s part, as there did not look even a hint of dissent, rather Ramsey moving the ball to where the kick would apparently be lined up.
A couple of minutes later, Benny was booked for a late challenge on Piszczek.
As the match entered the last ten minutes, we were boosted by the news of Fetfatzidis’ goal for Olympiacos. That put them 1-0 up at Marseille and if both scores held we would win the group tonight. There was still ten-plus minutes to go, however.
In the 82nd minute, Benny had a chance to grab our second, but he too hesitated, allowing Dortmund to clear. Arsene then brought JD on for Kos.
With five minutes to go, we earned a free kick around 30 yards from the Dortmund goal. Arteta took it, smacking it off the Dortmund wall and out for a corner. Just before we took the corner, Arsene made his final sub, bringing Diaby on for his first appearance in half a year, for Theo.
Diaby immediately proved a lucky talisman, as we got the second goal we should have scored back in the first half, from the corner.
Once again it was Robin, who drifted almost un-noticed to the back post. Arteta swung it in, TV fed it on and Robin tapped in from three yards out! 2-0 and on track to qualify for the knockout stage.
We navigated the remaining regulation and first minute of injury time. In the second minute, however, Song got a bit too cute down by our corner. He and JD combined to give the ball to Leitner. He picked out Lewandowski, who fed Kagawa for a close range consolation.
Much too little, and way too late, It made little difference, other than to flatter Dortmund.
The whistle went a few second later, followed by the final whistle at the Velodrome.
Our win, combined with Olympiacos’ win meant we won this group with a game to spare. Dortmund are all but out and if Olympiacos beat us on the final match-day (which, if Arsene chooses to over-rotate, is highly possible), then they may be able to overtake OM for second spot.
For the team who was expected to crash at the first hurdle – indeed, the team that many projected would not get past Udinese in the competition qualifiers back in August – has again assured CL football in the New Year.
We join Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and Internazionale as group winners; Bayer 04 Leverkusen (at Chelsea’s expense!), AC Milan, and APOEL FC have qualified, and Ajax are all-but-in. It is worth noting that we are the only Prem side to secure qualification.
United and Chelsea will probably both find ways to get through, while City no longer have their fate in their own hands. Should all three of these sides fail to progress from matchday six – highly unlikely, but nevertheless possible – then the much derided Arsenal will stand alone as England’s only representative in the competition…
As it is, the above scenario has little to do with us. If any or none of the other three sides qualify, that will not change the fact that we will need to worry about ourselves first and foremost.
Winning the group means we won’t draw the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern or Inter in the next round, but there are still some difficult teams on order. These include Milan, Leverkusen, Napoli (if they finish ahead of City), Ajax, and the winner of the Zenit – Porto clash.
We can now put this competition to one side for a few months. I would like us to win the dead-rubber (for us) match at Piraeus, but I recognize that the result will not be first priority for us. Nevertheless, I hope we rotate responsibly.
We have some players that absolutely should not be risked – Robin first and foremost – and others who can use the breather. But I think the club will be better served by starting a balanced mix of first team regulars and squad/youth/reserve players. I think those getting a rare opportunity are likely to do better alongside first team regulars than they would in a side of 8-10 squad/reserve/kid players.
Like the quarterfinal ties, we’ll worry more about the final group game when we come to that point.
Next up is Fulham, a match that we need to win to keep our good league run going but before that, well done to our players and coaching staff.
We beat a tough, credible opponent last night, and won our group cleanly. Some quarters will give us credit, others won’t – that’s life, and the haters (of which plenty remain) will continue to hate, because that is what they do.
We are not yet where we want to be – or should be but only the most blinkered hater will refuse to acknowledge we are on the up….
Crisis? Go to Stamford Bridge if you want to see what a crisis resembles.
That most certainly is not us…
Written by Oliver