Arsene Wenger’s red and white army booked their place among Europe’s elite with a comfortable, if not overly pulsating, three-nil win over Sparta Prague, giving the Gooners a five-nil aggregate victory.
With Flamini, Cesc and Robin all on yellow cards from the first-leg, common sense would have been to rest all three, especially Cesc following his so-called ‘spat’ with Sparta captain Tomas Repka. The interesting fact of the night was that only four of the first eleven started out in Prague, symptomatic of the spate of short-term injuries we seem to have collected recently. Nonetheless, the teamsheet saw returns to action for Diaby, Justin, Senderos and Theo. The absence of skipper Willy Gallas saw Kolo take the armband – surprising considering that Gilberto was a starter, is this a sign that Le Boss plans to phase him out of the first team by the end of the season? As expected, Cesc started on the bench and was joined by Alex Hleb. However, Robin’s temper was risked as he partnered Eduardo up-front.
On the back of the bruising and immensely satisfying two-nil win out in Prague, it was fairly obvious that the first goal would set the tone for the night. Were Prague to grab it, then we could have been in for a jittery evening indeed. But instead it was us who raced out of the blocks, going ahead from Sparta old-boy Tommy Rosicky. The ball was hit up to Robin who controlled suspiciously with his arm, but the opposition didn’t appeal for it. He layed it off to Justin who played it down the line for Theo. Having just maintained to stay onside, the youngster showed good fleet of foot to get past his man and knock in a dangerous low cross. It went behind Eduardo but found Rosicky arriving from the left 12 yards out as the Czechster guided a low finish past their keeper for his first goal of the season. He was almost embarrassed to have scored against his first club, I swear I saw him offer a hand of apology to the travelling supporters (not that there were many of them…) Towards the back-end of last season Rosicky twice scored similar goals (against Bolton and Man City in consecutive games), getting on the end of a cross from the opposite flank. Both goals came in the first-half, like this one against Sparta, and thus both were at the South end of the Emirates, the end which is so barren in terms of Arsenal goals compared to the North end which we usually attack in the second-half (more often than not when we are chasing the game). Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires had a happy knack of opening the scoring during their time at the Club, and if Rosicky can replicate this then he will go some way to fulfilling his potential.
Having started very brightly – especially Theo who linked up well with Justin – we understandably took our foot of the accelerator. Sparta’s stifling 4-5-1 didn’t help the spectacle either, a formation which they stuck to despite having to chase the game even more having fallen a goal behind on the night. Our main threat came from the flanks, in particular Theo who was giving their left-back a torrid time, and one incident when Eduardo pulled to the left and floated in a teasing cross which Robin could not convert at full stretch. In the early exchanges Diaby looked good alongside Gilberto as the Brazilian’s presence allowed him to drive forward with gusto. Whether it’s a good or bad thing, he will forever be compared to Patrick Vieira and made a passable impression of the Invincibles’ skipper early on with his telescopic dribbling style and strength. He is still young lest we forget, and his decision-making wasn’t too hot after this explosive start, but this should come with experience and game-time. The final 20 minutes of the first-half were sloppy at best and the Arsenal defence was nearly caught out a few times, none more so than when a ball from deep was played in behind Gael Clichy. Thankfully the Sparta player’s dink fell wide of the post having beaten Manuel Almunia all ends up. I reckon this error by the French full-back was more due to a lapse in concentration rather than chronic bad positioning – in fact I felt Gael was the worst culprit of complacency on the night.
The second-half started in much the same vein as Arsenal were unable to attack with any sense of urgency. Our play became scrappy and we could have conceded from a corner as either Justin or Robin (I think it was Justin) unintentionally flicked-on a header at our own near post, forcing Manuel into action. Then on the hour we seemed to pick up our game, and although clear-cut chances were few and far between, the attacking intent had resurfaced. One real area of concern I feel is our execution of set-pieces, especially corners. With free-kicks and a played of Robin’s talent standing over them, there is always a chance that his delivery will cause some unpredictability in the opposition box. But with corners, particularly from the left where the right-foots of Cesc, Rosicky and tonight Theo whip the ball in, we are toothless, often failing to clear the first man.
Halfway through the second-half Le Boss made the changes that reinvigorated the team, bringing on Cesc for Diaby and Ade for Robin, who had been quiet but thankfully avoided picking up another booking. The Robin and Eduardo partnership had not managed to bear much fruit, but that may be due to the general sloppiness of the whole team after the first goal as opposed to any incompatibility issues. Even still, on paper it looks like Eduardo would be better partnered by Adebayor or Bendtner i.e. someone who can provide the Crozillian with knock-downs that he would thrive on (not that I’m suggesting we drop Robin, for he is now our magic man!) The arrival of Cesc changed the whole tempo of the game, such is his importance to our team nowadays. Combined with the fact that our overall fitness had begun to overtake Sparta’s, things became slicker in midfield with the little Spaniard there. The right option (either dribble or pass) was being taken, and the right pass was being made. Soon after Cesc and Ade came on they were joined by Denilson, on for Rosicky who had given one of his better performances, certainly better than the one in the away leg in which he was largely anonymous. If he can stay fit for a run of games then I am sure he can contribute positively to the performance of the team.
Denilson’s presence on the pitch led to a seeming shift in tactics as he took up a right-midfield position, allowing Theo to join Ade up front and ‘shunting’ Eduardo out to wide-left. I had not noticed this during the match itself, but only when Cesc mentioned it in his post-match interview. From this wider position on 82 minutes, Eduardo delivered the magical moment of the night, knocking the ball past the full-back and running round him the other side to reach it. As he advanced into the box he had the wherewithal to spot Cesc on the edge of the area for the cutback and he duly obliged, giving Fabregas a relatively simple finish which had enough sting on it to find the net despite the keeper getting his fingers to it. When Cesc came on all I wanted him to do was avoid a booking and stay well away from Repka, who surely would have been seeking revenge on the Spaniard after the incident in the first-leg. His conductor’s performance simply illustrated his worth to this team and the goal was an added bonus.
Two minutes after the goal saw Theo pick up a needless booking: needless in the sense that it was an unnecessarily late challenge, but promising because like Cesc he is willing to stand up for himself and refuses to be bullied and retreat into his shell. Then in the last moment of normal time came the icing on the cake. Neat interplay between Ade and Denilson on the right of the box eventual led to the Brazilian crossing for Eduardo, who had taken up a fox-in-the-box near post position. He twisted his body to sidefoot a cushioned volley into the far corner from no more than 6 yards out, and this in the face of a possible clattering from the onrushing keeper. In fact when he scored it and stayed down I was sure that he had been clattered, but he got up and seemed fine. The goal was the perfect ending as Eduardo took up a dangerous position, showed good technique with the finish, and displayed his cojones (not literally of course!) to not duck out of taking the chance because of a possible clash with the keeper. Excellent stuff.
So the game finished 3-0, a flattering scoreline in truth, but like Liverpool the day before, the English team showed better fitness and class towards the end of the game. In reality it was a pretty dour match to watch barring the first and last 10 minutes, but in a way it was the perfect antidote to all these high tension games we’ve had at the start of the season so far, especially the two league games at the Emirates. The clean sheet is an added bonus, and despite not being 100% comfortable at the back (something I attribute to complacency), the centre-halves dealt well with their beanpole striker. Justin struck up a good understanding with Theo on the right flank and had a solid game, but the same cannot be said of Gael. While he didn’t have a poor game by any means, he was sloppy in possession at times, especially when clearing the ball. That said, if ever there was a game to have an off-day then this was it. Manuel didn’t have much to do at all as the visitors persisted with their ineffectual 4-5-1, but didn’t drop any clangers so that is a plus point. In midfield I thought both wingers hugged their touchlines well and stretched the play to good effect. In the second-half they also swapped wings quite often and it is this fluidity which will make us less predictable as we vary the point of attack. Gilberto did his usual ‘Invisible Wall’ job to good effect, filling in well when any defenders attacked and keeping his passing short and sweet, while alongside him Diaby started well but faded thereafter – it is his first game of the season so I will cut him some slack – showing some nice touches in the first-half. A quick word about Gilberto and the captaincy, he must feel slighted that he is not even the first-choice vice-captain and I am increasingly getting the feeling that he will follow the rest of our previous thirty-somethings through the exit door at the end of the season. Up top Robin tried hard with little success and even less service, whilst Eduardo foraged well and got his just rewards at the end. As I alluded to before, Cesc mentioned Eduardo being stationed out on the left-wing at the end of the game when he scored his goal, and it was from here that he produced two moments of real class. This leads me to believe that he could do a more than decent job as a left-winger in a 4-3-3, and with Theo able to take place on the opposite flank, I would like to see the formation tried out in cup games, with either Robin or Ade or Bendtner acting as the spearhead. Speaking of Theo, while his dribbling and footwork is improving, his final ball leaves a lot to be desired, especially his high crosses in comparison to Eboue. However, his future lies as a striker and I can see him ending up with a style very similar to a young Michael Owen.
And so to the draw. I love watching these draws, not just for the excitement of finding out our obstacles on the road to Moscow, but for the pure complicatedness of the method – pairing teams in the same country due to television constraints and having ‘red’ and ‘blue’ groups. These days there are no easy groups, but if we can avoid a real beast of a second seed then it will be a good draw. Also avoiding any horrible trips to Eastern Europe – especially Russia and Turkey – would make for a very good draw. Bring it on.