Thursday, 20 October 2011

Arsenal Beat Marseille 1-0 To Top Their Champions League Group.

Arsenal traveled to Marseille last night for a table topping game in their Champions League group. Arsenal went into the game with four points from their first two games, and Marseille had six points after winning their first two games. A draw would have been a good result on the night with two home games coming up next in the group, but Arsenal went one better and took all three points.

The team was more or less as expected with Andrey Arshavin coming in for Gervinho as the only change from Sunday's victory over Sunderland. It meant Tomas Rosicky got the nod over the fit again Aaron Ramsey, and Theo Walcott continued despite his poor showing on Sunday.

There was very little action in the first half, but both teams did have good claims for penalties turned down. I thought Arsenal should definitely have had a penalty, but the official behind the goal failed to spot a clear handball. At the other end Carl Jenkinson would have been unlucky to have conceded a penalty when the ball hit his hand, but I have seen them given on other occasions.

Arsenal had a succession of corners in the first half too, and Robin Van Persie almost scored from one with a header. Unfortunately for Arsenal the ball was cleared off the line and the scores remained level.

Arsenal did look a little uncertain at the back at times as well, but they managed to hold firm with Marseille not committing too many men to attack. It seemed that both teams would be fairly happy with a draw, and as the clock ran down in the second half that looked like the most likely outcome.

Arsene Wenger's plans for his substitutions on the night took were changed a little when Carl Jenkinson had to go off with what looked like a knee injury after just over an hour. Johan Djourou replaced him and made a far better effort at doing so than he did when he replaced Bacary Sagna away to Blackburn Rovers a few weeks ago. It meant that Arsenal only had two changes left to make from a tactical perspective.

Theo Walcott had another quiet night, but he did have one great chance in the second half which the keeper saved with his feet. Walcott should have done better from eight yards out, but he never really looked like scoring. RVP had a chance from a similar position later, but it was a much tighter angle, and the keeper saved that too.

Walcott went off halfway through the second half and Gervinho was his replacement. I wasn't impressed by Gervinho's efforts against Sunderland, but he looked much sharper in the final 15 minutes last night. With 12 minutes to go Ramsey replaced Arshavin, who had a truly awful game on the night. Nothing went right for him, but he also looked disinterested at best.

I don't think Rosicky has the legs to last 90 minutes any more, but he was asked to do so last night because Arshavin could not be allowed to continue. He had his chance to show what he is capable of, and he made a complete and utter mess of it. It's hard to know whether he is struggling for form, or whether he just doesn't want to be at the club any more.

When Russia failed to qualify for the World Cup two years ago it affected Arshavin badly and his form suffered. However, he captained his country to top their group and qualify for Euro 2012 only last week, and he can surely have no excuses now. He needs to start playing for Arsenal like he plays for Russia.

I know Arsenal play him in a wide role and he would prefer to play just behind a striker, but he's good enough to make a real impact out wide. It's hard to fathom what has happened to the player who scored four goals at Anfield in his first season at Arsenal. I don't think Arsenal will ever see that sort of form from Arshavin again.

As the game drew to what seemed like an inevitable conclusion of a scoreless draw Marseille seemed relatively content. It was Arsenal who looked the more likely to conjure up a goal, and they did just that in the final minute of the three added minutes.

Djourou put in a cross from the right, and Gervinho failed to control it as it ran behind him in the penalty area. Ramsey came in from his role on the right and was unmarked as he took one touch to control the ball and another one to dispatch it to the net with his right foot. There was no time for Marseille to reply, and Arsenal went home with all three points.

The best player on the night for Arsenal was Laurent Koscielny, and he looks the most likely player to play alongside Thomas Vermaelen when he returns. There is a possibility that he will play at right back though if Jenkinson remains injured for any length of time. I have been reliably informed that he has played there before, and he certainly looks capable of doing so.

It means Arsenal are now on top of their group, and a win at home to Marseille in their next game would almost certainly guarantee qualification. In the other game in the group Olympiacos beat Borussia Dortmund 3-1, and the German champions look like they have virtually no chance of qualifying at this stage.

Last night could have been a very tricky night for Arsenal, but they managed to get through an away Champions League game without coming under too much real pressure. They have now won five of their six Champions League games this season, and they sit on top of a group which was seen as a rather tough one.

From here Arsenal have a few days to take stock of which players are fit and which ones aren't before they face Stoke City at home on Sunday. It's always a tough physical battle against Stoke, but Arsenal will need to dig deep and play their football no matter how often Stoke attempt to stop them by any means. They also need to be ready for the aerial assault which Stoke always apply, and they need to make sure they beat them no matter what.

I'll be previewing that game on Saturday and I'll be making my usual Premier League predictions tomorrow too.

That's it for today.

Here's the highlights from last night's game with thanks to Arsenalist.

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