Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Arsenal's Second String Lose 3-1 To Olympiacos

Arsenal made the trip to Olympiacos last night with a squad which only contained two of the players who started the 4-0 defeat of Wigan last Saturday. Those two players were Thomas Vermaelen and Andre Santos, but I didn't expect either of them to start the game. I was rather surprised to see their names on the team sheet, but I suppose Arsene Wenger wanted to make his defence as strong s possible.

The rest of the team was more or less as expected, and Andrey Arshavin got his chance to play in his favoured role just behind the main striker. It meant Arsenal were playing a mixture of youth and fringe players against a team that needed to win to have any chance of qualifying for the last 16 of the Champions League. Arsenal were in the enviable position of having won the group already, and the game was rather meaningless to them.

In an ideal world I'm sure Wenger would have preferred to have stayed at home and trained with the rest of the first team squad. Those players should be very well rested for next Saturday's Premier League home game against Everton. The most important thing on the night for Arsenal was to keep Vermaelen and Santos free of injury for the weekend.

Olympiacos knew they had to win to have any chance of making it through to the last 16, and they played like a team that wanted desperately to qualify. As long as Marseille didn't win away to Borussia Dortmund they would finish second in the group if they could take all three points.

Arsenal started off quite well and Marouane Chamakh played Arshavin in early on, but his effort was blocked by the keeper. Olympiacos were working very hard to close Arsenal down, and Arsenal found it hard to find time and space on the ball.  They looked far from secure at the back, but they also looked capable of making more chances themselves.

After only 16 minutes the first goal arrived, and it came from Olympiacos. Arshavin lost the ball as Arsenal broke forward, and it got played in behind the Arsenal defence via two deflections. Lukasz Fabianski advanced from his goal line, but he was easily rounded by Rafik Djebbour who slotted the ball into an empty net.
continued to look unstable at the back, and the old "flappy" Fabianski returned. He didn't last long though, as a collision with Vermaelen led to him being stretchered off and Vito Mannone coming on after 25 minutes. I hope the very vocal Mannone would give some solidity to the Arsenal defence, but it wasn't to be.

After 36 minutes David Fuster added to Olympiacos lead with a goal that was of true comic proportions. I have no doubt that their second goal will appear in a "what happened next" clip on
A Question of Sport" one day. It was hard to believe how Olympiacos managed to score the goal, but it will live with Mannone for quite a while I'm sure.

He advanced from the penalty area to head the ball clear as Olympiacos broke, and Fuster shot as he retreated into his area. Mannone obviously lost his bearings and decided to try to clear the ball with his feet despite being in his penalty area. He missed the ball and it bounced three times before rolling into an empty net.

Mannone was completely at fault for the goal, but he was helped by his defenders either. When he advanced to clear the ball one of them should have dropped back to cover the goal line just in case he was lobbed. Nobody did what every amateur central defender knows is a basic requirement when the goalkeeper leaves his penalty area.
It left Arsenal 2-0 down with halftime approaching, and Olympiacos looking highly likely to finish second in the group. There was some hope for Arsenal though, as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was giving the left side of the Olympiacos defence a lot of trouble. Every time he got the ball he was shadowed by two or more players, but he still did all he could to inject some urgency into the Arsenal attack.
The second half started off with Olympiacos keeping up the pressure on Arsenal, and Arsenal looking highly unlikely to do anything to change the outcome. That changed after 57 minutes when Chamakh chested down a good ball into the box for Yossi Benayoun to volley home, and give Arsenal some hope. Olympiacos tried to get another goal to guarantee victory, but they gradually tired and I though Arsenal might just sneak a draw.
Arsenal continued to make mistakes at the back, but Olympiacos didn't take advantage of them, and they looked a little nervous. In the last minute they guaranteed the three points, and looked to have sealed a place in the last 16 too.
A free kick from the right was headed against the post by Olof Mellberg, and when the ball rebounded out Francois Modesto was on hand to put it into an empty net. Arsenal called for offside, but Benayoun among others had played at least three players onside, and the goal stood. The final whistle was quickly approaching, but the Greek fans soon stopped celebrating.
News came through from the other game in the group that Marseille had come back from 2-0 down to beat Dortmund 3-2 with two goals in the last five minutes. It put Marseille through to the last 16, and left Olympiacos to play in the Europa League knockout stages along with the other also-rans.
On the night Arsenal looked to suffer from their inexperience, and their inability to impose their own game on Olympiacos. I think a full strength Arsenal team would have had a lot of joy against a team that pressurised them so much, and would have scored plenty of goals on the break. The game was good experience for some of the younger players, as it was played in front of such a noisy and partisan crowd.
It's not often that younger players get an opportunity to play in the Champions League, and in such an intimidating venue too. I'm sure they will have learned something from the game, and hopefully it will stand to them in the future.
There were some negatives for Arsenal too, and the performances of their second and third choice goalkeepers weren't exactly inspiring. I can only hope that Wojciech Szczesny doesn't pick up an injury at any stage this season, because the thought of Fabianski or Mannone playing in the team fills me with dread. If neither of them were to play the next options Manuel Almunia, and tht doesn't bear thinking about in my opinion.
I was particularly unhappy with the performance of Arshavin who got the chance to show what he can do in his favoured role. He missed a great chance early on, and he did very little for the rest of the game. When he lost the ball he looked disinterested in regaining it, and his days at Arsenal look numbered to me.
I wouldn't be surprised to see him sold in January, as he looks like he has little interest in playing for the club any more. His career at Arsenal started off so well, but it's been a while now since he has made any real impact.
Chamakh had another night where very little went right for him, but at least he kept trying for the whole game. It can't be easy for him knowing he will always be second fiddle to Robin van Persie, but he needs to make a better impression when he does play. He did well in the build up to the goal, but he was far too slow to shoot when Emmanuel Frimpong played him in earlier in the game.
Squillaci looked out of his depth again, and he's another player who won't be around for too long I would imagine. He's the fifth choice central defender at the club at best, and the chances are he will see very little action as long as he stays at the club.
I wasn't happy with the risk Arsene Wenger took in playing both Vermaelen and Santos, and it looks like it may have backfired. Santos went off injured six minutes into the second half, and it looks like he might be out for a while. He is currently the only fit full back at the club, and if he is injured it means either Ignasi Miquel or Vermaelen will have to play at left back.
Hopefully he can recover quickly, and both Carl Jenkinson and Kieran Gibbs can return before too long too. When Bacary Sagna returns I think the defence will look an awful lot more stable, as he is the best right back in the Premier League and has been sorely missed.
Thankfully the Olympiacos game can now be forgotten about and consigned to the record books, as it had no significance on Arsenal's progress. The club can now concentrate on playing Everton on Saturday afternoon, and celebrating it's 125th anniversary. I'll be at the game along with a few fellow Irish Arsenal fans, and it promises to be a great day.
There will be more about that before the weekend from the club I'm sure, and I'll preview the game before my very early morning flight on Saturday.
That's it for today.

Here's the highlights from last night's game.

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