It's hard to know where to start when reviewing last night's Champions League clash between Arsenal and Partizan Belgrade. Arsenal got the win that they needed, and progressed to the knockout stages of the competition, as runners up in their group. It means that they will more than likely have a very tough draw in the last 16, but those games don't take place until February and March, which is a long time away.
Partizan came to The Emirates as the whipping boys of the group, having lost all five of their games and only managing one goal in the process. That goal was handed to them in the reverse fixture with Arsenal, by a bizzare handball from Denilson. Arsenal knew that a win might see them top the group if Braga won away to Shakhtar Donetsk, however unlikely that may have seemed. With that in mind Arsenal needed to approach the game as if their lives depended on it, but the tempo and confidence required were sadly missing for almost the entire match.
For me the malaise started with the team selection, as neither Tomas Rosicky or Jack Wilshere were playing, which meant that Denilson played in midfield alongside Alex Song. With Samir Nasri and Andrey Arshavin operating in the wide roles it meant that both Robin Van Persie and Marouane Chamakh played together for the first time. I'm sure Arsene Wenger wanted to see how they operated as a unit, but I thought it took something from the game of both players.
There was a general lethargy about the whole Arsenal team, and misplaced passes were the order of the day more often than not. Rarely will you see Arsenal players in possession who have no options, and end up hitting hopeful balls as a result, but that was the norm last night. Despite all that Partizan still offered very little, and once Arsenal had the lead they should have coasted home.
However, the central defensive pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci played as if they were unaware of each other's existence, and Partizan put them under pressurd time after time with simple balls between the two of them. With the Arsenal full backs attempting to push forward it meant there was nobody to sweep behind them, and it eventually led to a Partizan equaliser.
Thanfully Arsenal managed to up the pace just enough to get two more goals, and see the game out despite a few late scares after Bakary Sagna was sent off late on, but it was far from a convincing performance. The performances of both Andrey Arshavin and Denilson were very poor in my opinion, and Arshavin was substituted but somehow or other Denilson stayed on the pitch for the entire 90 minutes. If the object of the excercise was to rest a few players ahead of the "Manure" game next Monday it worked, but it was a gamble that nearly didn't pay off.
I've been through most of the changes to the team above, except to mention that Kieran Gibbs came in at left back for Gael Clichy, although he lasted only 24 minutes as his injury jinx struck yet again. It would seem that he can play no more than two games when he returns from injury, before being struck down again, and there now must be serious worries about his ability to make it at this level. All those who have called for him to replace Clichy, and for Clichy to be sold as well would do well to consider exactly how many games he has played for Arsenal and how often he has been injured.
With Clichy unable to play due to illness last night it meant that Emmanuel Eboue came on at left back for 65 minutes, but it's not a position he's particularly comfortable in. I thought that the more likely candidate to play at left back when Gibbs went off was Sagna, and that Eboue should have played in his preferred position of right back. It may well have offered a little more balance to the team, as Eboue loves to get forward from right back, but he offered little on the other side.
With very little to write about for the first 30 minutes Arsenal eventually took the lead after 30 minutes from a RVP penalty. Song flicked the ball to him via a Partizan defender, and with RVP heading away from goal he went down under a challenge from a defender. It was a definite penalty, and Partizan didn't complain too much about it. RVP stepped up and struck the ball firmly into the corner, giving the keeper no chance, and Arsenal a 1-0 lead.
The scene was set for Arsenal to push on, and score three or four more goals to ease their nerves and those of their fans. However, it looked like the Arsenal players were happy enough with their one goal lead, and they created very little after that. Half time came and went, and still there was no beautiful football to warm the fans on a very cold night. With the news that Shakhtar Donetsk and Braga were still drawing 0-0 coming through, it meant that Arsenal looked secure in second place in the group.
That would change if Partizan managed to score a goal, and Cleo did just that in the 52nd minute. Partizan brought the ball forward, and Arsenal backed off them as a ball was fed to Cleo 25 yards out in a central position. Squillaci backed off him instead of getting tight, and then tried to block his shot from 22 yards, but could only deflect it over the despairing dive of Lukasz Fabianski. Suddenly the news from the other game in the group became very important, as a goal for Braga would now put Arsenal out.
If the lead goal for Arsenal hadn't woken the players up, then surely the Partizan equaliser should have done the trick, but still there was no response from Arsenal. If anything Arsenal were even worse, and Arshavin could do nothing right at all. It seemed that every time he got the ball that he lost it or passed it to the opposition, and the crowd were becoming very impatient with him. He was replaced after 67 minutes and Theo Walcott came on for him. Walcott moved to the right hand side, with Nasri moving out to the left.
Things improved ever so slightly after that, and thankfully Arsenal took the lead again after 73 minutes. Sagna crossed a ball to the heart of the Partizan defence, and it was poorly headed out to Walcott only eight yards out. He was at a very tight ankle though, and he did very well to take the ball on his chest, and finish it into the far corner with his right foot as it dropped. The relief in the players, fans and management was there for all to see, and surely Arsenal wouldn't let their lead slip again.
Only four minutes later things got even better for Arsenal as Samir Nasri increased their lead and finished the game as a contest. After some ping pong outside the Partizan box the ball fell to Song. He played a one-two with Nicklas Bendtner, and then beat a couple of defenders with some very good footwork. He passed to Nasri who looked like he was going to pass the ball, but he put his left foot through the ball, and it flew past the goalkeeper. At 3-1 surely nothing could go wrong, and Arsenal looked securely through to the last 16.
Of course things are never that simple with Arsenal, and with five minutes to go Sagna got his marching orders after taking his man down in a very dangerous situation for Arsenal. Sagna was outpaced, and the central defenders didn't have any interest in covering him, so he took his man down just outside the box to give away a free kick. The referee had no choice in giving the red card, and it means Sagna will miss the next game in the Champions League for Arsenal. At least he managed to take his man down outside the box, and not inside it, so the result was a free kick and not a penalty.
Partizan mounted a little bit of a rally after that, but Fabianski and the defence were equal to anything that was thrown at them. It was Arsenal who should have scored more goals as first of all Walcott made a mess of putting the ball on a plate for RVP, and then Bendtner took the ball off the toes of RVP as he looked like he was about to score.
At the final whistle the news came through that Shakhtar had beaten Braga, and Arsenal had finished second in the group. It means that Arsenal will play one of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Schalke 04 in the last 16, and it's not a draw that they will look forward to. Their away performances against Shakhtar and Braga were what let them down, and they could well pay the price in the next round. However, Arsenal have beaten some of the best teams in Europe at that stage of the competition before, and there's no reason why they can't again.
There are now four days to go to the trip to "Manure", and will Arsenal need to play an awful lot better than they did last night if they are going to get a result in that game. Thankfully it's an away match, as their home form has been so poor recently, and they have the best away record in the Premier League. There's a possibility that Cesc Fabregas will be available for that game, but he won't be risked if he isn't fully fit. I'll look into that game closer to the day, and of course I'll do my usual Premier League predictions tomorrow.
That's it for today.
See You Tomorrow.