Arsenal took on Marseille at home last night in their fourth group game in this season's Champions League. Arsenal came into the game on top of the group with seven points from three games, and they knew a victory would ensure qualification for the last 16. They had beaten Marseille 1-0 in the reverse fixture two weeks ago with an added time go from Aaron Ramsey.
The team saw a few of changes from the one that beat Chelsea so impressively last Saturday with the inclusions of Carl Jenkinson, Thomas Vermaelen and Park Ju Young. It meant star player Robin Van Persie was rested, but he was on the bench in case he was needed to change things around later in the game. It also meant that Johan Djourou was relieved of his duties as an emergency right back, but young Jenkinson was still deputising for the injured Bacary Sagna.
The biggest surprise for me was the inclusion of Vermaelen at the expense of the very impressive Laurent Koscielny. Vermaelen is clearly the first choice central defender at the club, but I thought Per Mertesacker would be the man to miss out. I'm not knocking Mertesacker, but I think a combination of Vermaelen and Koscielny is one that should be considered Arsenal's best option in the centre of defence.
I would like to see the two of them get the chance to play together as soon as possible, and I hope they are both played against West Brom on Saturday. Koscielny was bought in the summer of 2010 to play alongside Vermaelen, but they have rarely done so because of the injury problems suffered by Vermaelen. I can only imagine that Koscielny was rested last night, or Arsene Wenger is going to try all of his options in the centre of defence.
It can't be a bad thing for the team that Arsenal now have a genuine choice in that position, and hopefully it will help to lead to some better defensive displays from the team.
Park had been impressive in the Carling Cup victory over Bolton Wanderers last week, and this was his chance to show what he could do as a part of Arsenal's first team. He was flanked by the two players who Wenger has clearly decided are his first choices in the wide roles. Both Theo Walcott and Gervinho had been excellent in the victory over Chelsea, and more of the same was hoped for from them last night.
Marseille opened much the stronger, as Arsenal took a few minutes to find their feet. Gradually Arsenal began to get the upper hand in the first half, but the free flowing attacking football of last Saturday wasn't happening. Marseille made it a lot harder for Arsenal to find space than Chelsea did, and the Arsenal players made far too many basic errors in possession.
The best chance Arsenal had in the first half fell to Aaron Ramsey, but he took too long and his effort was blocked. There was one incident when Alou Diarra handled the ball in his own penalty area, but the officials would have done very well to have spotted it. He got away with it though, just as he had done two weeks ago.
At half time there was no score, but I hoped for Arsenal to step up the pace and get the goals they needed in the second half. RVP, Tomas Rosicky and Andrey Arshavin were all introduced during the second half for Park, Ramsey and Gervinho, but to no avail. RVP almost managed a winner for Arsenal late on, and Arsenal put the Marseille goalmouth under a lot of pressure in the later stages.
It was all to no avail though, as Marseille held out for a point to remain in second place in the group, just one point behind Arsenal. Borussis Dortmund beat Olympiacos 1-0 in the other game in the group to move four points behind Arsenal, and they will visit Arsenal in three weeks time. Marseille will play at home to Olympiacos on the same night, and it looks like the final places in the group won't be decided until the final group games in early December.
Arsenal may not have reached the heights of Saturday's victory over Chelsea, but they are still in the driving seat in their Champions League group. A win at home to Dortmund will ensure qualification, but the winners of the group probably won't be decided until the final games are played. If Arsenal are certain of qualifying it will be very interesting to see what team Wenger puts out in the final game away to Olympiacos.
Arsenal have played weakened teams at the end of the group stages previously, and suffered the consequences too. If Arsenal can win their group they will have a last 16 tie against a runner-up from another group with the second leg taking place at the Emirates. Those are advantages which Arsenal need to make use of if they are to have any chance of making the last eight.
I can't see this Arsenal team going any further than the last eight this season, but hope springs eternal and if they can make it that far they could spring a surprise. There's no telling what might happen in the next transfer window, but it won't be easy to find top quality players who will be free to play in Europe.
Next up for Arsenal is a home Premier League game against West Brom on Saturday afternoon at the unusual time of three p.m. It's a game Arsenal simply cannot afford to drop points in, and I expect Wenger to have his very strongest side out. I expect the teams ahead of Arsenal to win this weekend with the possible exception of Newcastle and Tottenhm Hotspur, and Arsenal need to be ready to take advantage of any slips.
It would be great if Arsenal could go into the international break on the back of four straight Premier League wins. It would certainly leave them in a far better position than they were in going into the previous two breaks.
That's it for today.
Here's the highlights from last night's game.
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