Thursday, December 11, 2014

Galatasaray 1 Arsenal 4

Although Arsenal still had a chance to win  Group D and get a favourable draw for the next round, with their place in the knock-out stages already secured, Arsene Wenger's priority was clear as he left Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck, Kieran Gibbs, Laurant Koscielny, and Santi Cazorla at home to give them a breather. Maybe the Frenchman's estimate of 10% was right for Arsenal's chance to go through as the top of the group. Dortmund losing at home was almost inconceivable, while it looked an unlikely scenario that the Gunners would beat Galatasaray in Istanbul by six goals or more, combined with a draw between Dortmund and Anderlecht. For this final group stage fixture, the focus was thus on Arsenal's performance rather than a result, following their shocking defensive display in the first half against Stoke three days ago. The team needed to put things right, while some players had a point to prove.

Arsene Wenger took the unusual step of revealing his starting line-up 24 hours before the game. There were 5 changes to the starting XI that played in the 3-2 defeat to Stoke. Wojciech Szczesny, who missed 3 games through a hip injury and sat out one, replaced his deputy Emi Martinez, while Mathieu Debuchy made a much-awaited return after a 3-month lay-off through a damaged ankle ligament. Hector Bellerin was moved to left-back in place of rested Kieran Gibbs. Apparently, the 19 year-old Spaniard did play at left-back at times when he was with Watford on loan, so he was not totally unfamiliar with the position. Lukas Podolski, Joel Cambell, and Yaya Sanogo came in for Santi Cazorla, Alexis Sanchez, and Olivier Giroud. Six young players were on the bench, including Alex Iwobi, Chuba Akpom, and Glen Kamara.

The game started in a contrasting way to last weekend's clash with Stoke. Arsenal took the lead just 3 minutes into the game through Poldi's powerful shot from the left-hand channel. Ramsey's composed finish from inside the area and his breathtaking left-footed volley from 30 yards out put us in a comfortable position within 30 minutes of kick-off. Arsenal looked dangerous and purposeful every time they went forward, which was quite refreshing. In Germany, Dortmund and Anderlecht finished the first half goalless. At half time, an idea suddenly dawned on us that we might be able to win the group. A six-goal margin looked impossible prior to the game, but we were half way there.

At half time, Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini were withdrawn due to a tight hamstring and a calf problem coupled with a yellow card, respectively. After the match, Wenger assured us that they should be OK for Saturday's match. Gedion Zelalem and Ainsley Maitland-Niles were introduced in their place, but the withdrawal of the two senior midfielders clearly led to the loss of momentum in attacking. It is impossible to replace Aaron Ramsey when he is playing at his full potential. On top of that, those who were not used to play full games, such as Poldi and Campbell, visibly faded midway through the second half.

On the defensive side, as Galatasaray came out brightly in the second half, the memory of allowing Anderlecht to come back from 3 goals down might have come across our defenders' mind.

Galatasaray had an opportunity to give their home fans something to cheer about through Sneijder's free-kick. The Spanish referee gave Galatasaray the free-kick in a dangerous place as Mertesacker was adjudged to have handled the ball, but it was a harsh decision as he was turning his back to the ball and there was nothing he could do to avoid the ball hitting his arm in the close range.

There was still time left, though, for Arsenal to add the fourth goal. Poldi shrugged off two defenders to collect the ball back from Sanogo and slotted past the goalkeeper with his weaker right foot. It was virtually the last kick of the game.

It was a perfect response to the disappointment on Saturday. An Arsenal side proved that they are not a one-man team. Without Sanchez, they still produced 4 superb goals. There were encouraging signs that suggested Aaron Ramsey might have rediscovered last season's form. He was outstanding with his all-round display. He made an important and perfectly-timed tackle in the box, while he instigated the swift movement leading to Poldi's first goal by making a thrusting run from deep and set up the German striker for the goal with an incisive pass. His two goals demonstrated the different aspects of his finishing: accuracy, composure, technique and confidence. All of these were the traits of his peak performances during last season. Especially, both his goals came from his weaker left foot, which suggest that his confidence is back. Hopefully, he can build on from this night's performance.

Ramsey's second goal not only won plaudits from the pundits, but went viral. Interestingly, Arsene Wenger revealed that he wasn't impressed with the Welshman's decision when he saw him taking a shot from 30 yards out. We must say it was extraordinary luck for any Arsenal shot to hit the back of the net after evading all those bodies. It doesn't happen to us very often.

Another positive was the return of Mathieu Debuchy. The French right-back showed what we were missing for the last three months and his return will no doubt solidify our defence.

In addition, Poldi and Campbell had a rare full game. Their performances underlined Arsenal's depth of the squad in attack. After the match, Wenger was adamant that Campbell was not leaving in January.

Unfortunately, the 4-1 victory was not enough to win the Group D, but the team can take encouragement from their impressive first-half performance. In  hindsight, surrendering the 3-goal lead against Anderlecht cost us dearly. However, they have achieved the primary target for this game, which was to restore their pride and boost morale for the forthcoming Premier League games. The north London club await Monday's draw to find out who they are going to face in the next round of the Champions League, but before that, we have a massive game against an in-form Newcastle side.

Players ratings

Szczesny: 6
There were a few evidences of the lack of communications with the defenders. He doesn't command his area strongly enough.

Dubuchy: 8
Great to see a strong performance on his return after three months on the sidelines. Made 3 tackles, 6 interceptions and 5 clearances. Replaced by Stefan O'Connor in the 77th minute. Hopefully the game served as a good run-out for him ahead of a big match against his former club.

Chambers: 7
Much improved display. 4 interceptions and 9 clearances. This night's performance must have helped him to restore his confidence.

Mertesacker: 7
Looked solid. Made important blocks.

Bellerin: 6
Did OK in a relatively unfamiliar position.

Flamini: 7
Marked Sneijder well, but was shown a yellow card. Made 22 passes with an impressive 100% accuracy. Replaced by Ainsley Maitland-Niles at half time.

Ramsey: 9

Sky Sports and Arsenal fans' Man of the Match. Scored 2 goals and set up another. Replaced by Gedion Zelalem at half time.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 8
Provided an assist for Aaron Ramsey's first goal. The Daily Mirror named him Man of the Match. Made 3 key passes and a total of 61 passes with a 90.1% passing success rate.

Campbell: 7

Looked dangerous. Unlucky not to score when he was released behind the defenders only to be denied by a superb save from Bolat.

Podolski: 8
Had 4 shots, of which 3 were on target, and also hit the crossbar. He even tracked back. One of those gutsy efforts (to be honest, another referee could have given Galatasaray a free-kick for that) led to Ramsey's first goal. 90.6% passing success rate was impressive for a striker.

Sanogo: 6
His holding-up play left a lot to be desired.


Zelalem: 6
Replaced Ramsey at half time.

Maitland-Niles: 7
Replaced Flamini at half time. The 17-year-old winger made his first-team debut. Wenger's instruction for him was to mark Wesley Sneijder tight, and he did a good job. Made 3 tackles and 1 interception.

O'Conner: 6
Replaced Debuchy in the 77th minute at right-back. The 17-year-old centre-back became the second player to make his first-team debut this night. Made 3 interceptions and 3 clearances.

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