Friday, December 11, 2015

Olympiacos 0 Arsenal 3 (Champions League Group Stage)

Asked if he could see the result coming in the post-match interview, Petr Cech answered that the team could see it, but most of pundits had written us off even before the first whistle was blown mainly because of the injuries to key players, most prominently Alexis Sanchez. Arsenal needed to beat the Greek champions by two clear goals or by any margin with them scoring at least three goals. Olympiacos' impressive stats against English sides did not bode well for us, either. Scoring two goals without reply in one of the most hostile atmospheres in Europe looked a daunting task for the north Londoners. Their proud run of qualification for the knock-out stages since 2000 was in a serious jeopardy. In our part, as fans, what we dreaded most was dropping to the Europa League.

Arsene Wenger made only one change from the side that started in a 3-1 defeat of Sunderland at the Emirates on Saturday. The Frenchman had little choice in the wake of Arsenal's annual injury crisis. Theo Walcott started in place of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, after coming off the bench in the 70th minute against Sunderland to return to the pitch for the first time since 27th October. In the absence of Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla, who are both set to spend the next 3 to 4 months on the sidelines due to knee ligament damages, Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey continued their partnership in central midfield. Among the bench were David Ospina, Mathieu Debuchy, Gabriel, Kieran Gibbs, Calum Chambers, the Ox and a teenager, Alex Iwobi.

In the pre-match conference, Arsene Wenger talked about their preparations for this game and how his sides had gone through all the possible scenarios ahead of the crunch game. However, the bottom line was simple: score two goals and concede none. The Gunners knew exactly what was required. On the other hand, as Wenger pointed out, it was more complicated for the hosts. We expected the Greek side to sit back and defend as a draw would have been enough for them to go through.

Despite our anticipations, the hosts started the game aggressively. It looked to us that we were heading for a long night, but the visitors slowly settled down and took control of the game. Walcott and Campbell, who started on the right and left wings, respectively, swapping the sides significantly helped the team get into the rhythm. Arsenal took the lead through Olivier Giroud's powerful header in the 29th minute after Flamini's deflected shot had hit the crossbar.

We were quite satisfied, going into half-time with a 1-0 scoreline, despite having to score at least another goal. The Gunners did not rush themselves. As long as they could keep a clean sheet, another goal would arrive eventually. Fortunately, we didn't have to wait too long after the game had resumed. It was a great build-up. Özil's high pass found Campbell, whose first touch was superb. The Costa Rica international held off his marker and delivered a perfect through-ball into the path of Giroud, after spotting the Frenchman's run. Giroud put it into the right-hand bottom corner with great composure. Now half the job was done.

The Greek side had to come out to score now. However, they had their work cut out when Omar Elabdellaoui was adjudged to have blocked Monreal's shot with his hand. We have to say we were a bit lucky in this decision, but we have had more than a fair share of bad luck in this Champions League campaign, so we happily took it. According to Wenger, Giroud was listed as the first penalty taker (in the absence of Arteta and Cazorla), followed by Theo (second) and Rambo (third). Giroud stepped up and scored from the spot to complete a hat-trick.

It was now Olympiacos that had a mountain to climb. They had to score three goals in the remaining 20 minutes plus stoppage time. It was game up for them and gave us some time to enjoy the game, knowing that we would be in the pot for the round of the last 16 come Monday noon.

It was a thoroughly professional job from the Gunners. They knew exactly what they had to do and executed it very well. On the other hand, Olympiacos looked to be in two minds, unable to make their mind up on whether to push for a win in front of enthusiastic home supporters, or to hold on for a draw. That indecisiveness made their defence vulnerable.

Arsenal are through to the knock-out stage of the Champions League for the 16th season in a row. The fact that the feat was achieved without our talisman Alexis is encouraging, as well as a clean sheet. The committed and efficient team performance this night should become a platform for the rest of the season.

Players ratings

Cech: 8
Made a couple of crucial saves. Wenger has also learnt his lessons. He has never dropped Cech since Ospina's howler against Olympiacos at home.

Bellerin: 7

Made 3 tackles, 2 interceptions and 3 clearances. Better defensive performance than in the past weeks.

Mertesacker: 7

Made 2 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 5 clearances.

Koscielny: 8

Made 2 interceptions and 8 clearances. When his clearance flew over his own crossbar, our hearts stopped, but he had to interfere with the cross. Solid performance.

Monreal: 7

Made 2 tackles, 3 interceptions and 5 clearances. 

Flamini: 7

Made 2 tackles, 5 interceptions and 3 clearances.

Ramsey: 7

Shown an early yellow card for a clumsy challenge when he was caught out of position. On the other hand, he made a clever run on the left flank and delivered an inch-perfect cross for Giroud's first goal.

Campbell: 8

Impressive performance at both ends. Made 3 key passes, including a sublime pass for Walcott. Growing in stature every game. Glad to see him step up his game in the absence of Alexis.

Özil: 8

Relieved to see him on the pitch after a calf strain, which forced him to miss Tuesday's training. Didn't claim an assist this night, but he was at the heart of creativity. For the first goal, he held off two Olympiacos players and delivered an astute pass in behind defenders for Ramsey. For the second, his incisive pass released Campbell.

Walcott: 7

Lacked match sharpness. Spurned a glorious chance by shooting wide when Campbell was better positioned unmarked. Still good to have him as an attacking option.

Giroud: 9
Excellent performance with commitment (he was on the floor in agony a few minutes before scoring his second goal) and skills. He may not be top-quality striker, but it's great to see him turn up with a big performance when it mattered (and score more than one goal in the same game). Had 4 shots, all of which were on target.


Gibbs: 6
Replaced Walcott in the 72nd minute. Had 17 touches. Made 1 tackle and 1 interception.

Oxlade-Chamberlian: N/A
Replaced Campbell in the 90th minute. Only had 4 touches.

Chambers: N/A
Came on in stoppage time for Giroud. Only had 2 touches. Made 1 interception.

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