Olympiakos 2 Arsenal 1: Second-Tier Gunners Lose at Athens…Yet Again
Tumultuous times are back in the Red half of North London and the recent run of results haven’t been satisfactory to say the least. With the Gunners travelling to Athens, far away from the troubles of the Premier League, the summit of Group B was there for the taking as Schalke went to the south of France in search of a positive result.
Wenger had spoken so much about fatigue in recent times and he made it clear that his focus was on getting his team’s Premier League campaign back on track. This made the boss travel to Greece with a relatively under-strength squad with some experienced folks as well.
For some strange reason, Wenger selected Szczesny to be between the sticks in a “dead-rubber” fixture like yesterday’s tie. I was expecting to see Vito Mannone somewhere in the mix but it was the youngster James Shea that accompanied Szczesny to Athens, a player yet to make his debut with the first team.
The defense had a somewhat awkward mix with skipper, Thomas Vermaelen playing alongside the forgotten figure, Sebastien Squillaci in the heart of Arsenal’s defense. Carl Jenkinson and youngster, Jernade Meade provided wit through the flanks.
The midfield had a familiar look with Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin playing behind the returning Tomas Rosicky. In attack, Gervinho and the Ox played on the flanks with the long lost figure, Marouane Chamakh getting his first start since the days Umaru Musa Yar’ Adua ruled Nigeria.
The game itself was a landmark fixture for Arsenal’s stalwart, Arsene Wenger, as it was his 150th Champions League fixture in charge of the Gunners. It’s also worth noting that he has guided Arsenal to second round qualification for 13 seasons in a row, but the ultimate prize has evaded him with his closest shot in the 2006 final against Barcelona in Paris.
Arsenal really lacked ideas in the final third and this was on display all game long.
Gervinho made one of his trademark runs before slotting a pass for Chamakh but they weren’t in the same wavelength as the attempted pass was behind the Moroccan forward. Djamel Abdoun was a constant thorn in Arsenal’s flesh and he fashioned a chance for his Algerian compatriot, Rafik Djebbour, but Vermaelen was on hand to make a good block.
The Ox made a mazy run on the right before lofting the ball into the box. Chamakh rose highest to flick the ball into the danger area but the Olympiakos defense failed to clear the ball to safety. After a goalmouth scramble, the ball fell kindly to Ramsey but the Welshman chose the best moment to miscue the ball, and a great chance went begging.
Maybe Ramsey had no plans of killing any notable figurehead this time, but for a player of his caliber the miss was shameful though.
Many believed that Chamakh would have used the game to stake a claim for a first team berth but his misery was compounded when his appalling first touch took the ball off his stride after receiving a delicious over the top ball. Elsewhere in the Santiago Bernebeu, Luka Modric lofted a similar diagonal ball to Jose Callejon and Ajax’s net was rattling afterwards.
Leandro Greco teed up Abdoun and the Algerian wasted no time in blasting the ball goalwards. Szczesny responded with a good save to see off that challenge. Abdoun continued to stamp his authority on the game and there was a moment were he took on the entire Arsenal defense before using the outside of his boot to locate his skipper, Vassillis Torosidis. The defender lost his bearings and fired a hapless shot over the bar.
When it seemed as if both team were going to head into the break with a goalless stalemate, the Ox and Gervinho combined well before the Ivorian threaded a carefully-weighted ball to Rosicky’s path. The onrushing Czech maestro used his great technique to blast in a one-time shot that left the goalie with no chance in Hell. It was one-nil to the Arsenal, but I still had my doubts that they had put the game beyond doubt.
At the start of the second half, Arsenal brought on Andrey Arshavin to replace Rosicky. The little Russian was involved straight away from a pass from Chamakh but his volley was aimed straight at former Manchester United goalie, Roy Carroll.
Abdoun conjured a trick from his magic box to tee up Ljubomir Fejsa but the midfielder’s effort hit the side netting. Olympiakos continued to probe and attack the Arsenal rearguard and they got a deserved equalizer when Abdoun’s cross hit Ramsey’s chest and dropped kindly for Giannia Maniatis. The midfielder wasted no time in nicking it past Szczesny to make it 1 – 1.
Meade didn’t put a foot wrong all game long but Paulo Machado got the better of him before drilling a cross to an unmarked Djebbour but the striker’s header was easy pickings for Szczesny.
The Greek giants had rested their hitman, Kostas Mitroglou, with half an eye on their fiery clash against rivals, Panathinaikos. Mitroglou came on for the terrorizing Abdoun and made an instant impact, with a sweet curler that went past Szczesny to make it 2 – 1.
Late on, Arsenal brought on youngster, Martin Angha to replace Meade. Despite coming in with minutes to spare, the Swiss defender must have relished the moment of making his Champions League debut.
At the end, it was another disappointing result in a game that would have had relevance to the Gunners had they won as Montpellier held Schalke to a 1 – 1 draw. On the bright side, the other teams that won their groups, PSG, Dortmund and Malaga aren’t the sort of teams that would make me pee on my pants if we are drawn against them in the Knockout phase.
In his post-match interview, Wenger had reiterated his desire to focus on his team’s stuttering Premier League form, but he’s hoping for a Christmas present, which probably means a draw against the likes of Malaga and all. If Arsenal is drawn against Barcelona or Bayern Munich, my smiles would turn upside down but to win such competitions you have to knock the best sides out.
In our road to Paris 06′ final, Arsenal faced the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus but emerged victorious. You can’t compare the quality of the 2005/06 squad to what we have now but we have to take each game as they come, with all focus on Saturday’s clash against West Brom.
With the Baggies above Arsenal in the log, a victory will go a long way in helping the Gunners close in on that last Champions League spot, but they have to bear in mind that Everton and Tottenham are on the prowl as well.
Tonight’s focus will be on the Shakhtar vs. Juventus game, let’s see if Chelsea would be the first ever defending champions to fall at the first hurdle.
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