Okay first things first: we have qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League. I just wanted to get that out of the way before I went into any depth about the performance, because at the end of the day qualification is the most important thing, regardless of how it is achieved. As I write this half-an-hour after the final whistle, I have already seen a bit of moaning on a few Arsenal websites. What a load of rubbish. We’ve been treated to caviar thus far this season, so a bit of sausage and mash isn’t necessarily a bad thing once in a while, even if it’s just to keep the players’ and fans’ feet on the ground.
As was announced on Tuesday, Le Boss had decided to leave Cesc, Alex Hleb, Kolo and Tomas back in London – the first two were being rested whilst the latter two had picked up slight knocks. There’s two phrases I’m sure you’ve never heard in the same sentence before: "Rosicky" and "slight knock".
So there was a lot of speculation swirling around about who would start for The Arse. Wenger made it clear that Almunia would retain his place in goal, and that Song would likely partner Gallas in central defence in the continued absence of Big Phil Senderos and the apparent refusal by Gilberto to play there. Eduardo and Walcott were vying to start up-front with either Ade or Bendtner, but funnily enough both of them started the game yet neither started up-front. For the majority of the game Bendtner ploughed a lone furrow in attack with Diaby supporting him from midfield, who was joined by Gilberto and Denilson in the centre of the park. Clichy took his place at left-back to give some semblance of seniority to the side, while the thus far hugely impressive Lassana Diarra filled in at right-back. From all this I felt there was one major loser: Justin Hoyte. Having played in almost half our games last season and seen how erratic Eboue was in his position, I’m sure he would have expected to be pushing for a permanent starting spot this season. The arrival of Sagna and the Braided One’s consistency put paid to that, and now seemingly he is third-choice behind Sagna and Diarra (maybe even fourth-choice if you include Eboue). Poor guy. I’d love him to stay at Arsenal but I just can’t see it happening now, although if Sepp Blatter gets his way then we’re gonna have to retain his services to fulfil the quota of Englishmen.
Anyhoo, back to the match. From the moment that we lined up with only Bendtner in attack, I kinda guessed that we weren’t going to see anything close to a repeat of the 7-0 drubbing a few weeks ago. We looked imbalanced from the first whistle as Eduardo and Theo were receiving balls on the halfway line with their backs to goal, and when the ball did eventually find Bendtner he hardly had any support. When Theo or Eduardo beat their first opponent they need to be central and close to goal to be effective (i.e. getting a shot away). Let me put it this way: would you ever play Michael Owen wide in a 4-5-1?
Early on the brightest spark was Diaby with a few nice touches, but infuriatingly he couldn’t create anything either in the final third. You got the feeling that his power and hustle and bustle would be more effective coming from deep rather than in the final third, because whenever he got past one man, there was another waiting to tackle him. In the first ten minutes we had all the possession but little end product. The closest we came to creating anything when Diaby broke through the middle with Theo in space on the right, but the lanky Frenchman’s touch was too heavy and on the stretch couldn’t quite poke the ball through to the young Englishman.
The first piece of real goalmouth action came at our end. Slavia won a corner and crossed it deep with Alex Song allowing his man to get goalside and get a header in. Thankfully he got under it and sent it miles over, but it was a warning sign. On 30 minutes the hosts also manufactured the only shot on target in the first-half as a William Gallas slip allowed their striker to shift the ball onto his left foot and let rip, but his rising effort was tipped over by Almunia. Arsenal created nothing for the remainder of the half – partly due to Slavia’s work-rate and partly due to Wenger’s tactics leaving the fluidity of the team thoroughly disjointed. The front six was the same that played against and ripped apart Sheffield United last week, but they just couldn’t find any rhythm this time. I was surprised that Wenger went with just the one striker, especially given his comments in the aftermath of the Man United game. As the half wore on it descended into a bitty, scrappy affair which foretold the pattern of the second-half.
As the second period got underway, it was absolutely pissing it down. There and then I said I’d be happy to take a point as I figured the weather would make it hellish for the players and could possibly result in mistakes being made at the back. That said, the second-half started at a higher tempo and it appeared as if Wenger had put a rocket up the players’ arses. For a brief five minute spell our passing was sharper and it looked as if Eduardo had come infield to partner Bendtner and Diaby had moved out to the left, but it must have been my imagine playing tricks with me as normal service was resumed thereafter. We nearly gave away a penalty as a ball from Slavia’s right bounced awkwardly off Gallas and nearly into the path of a Slavia player, who went down like a sack of spuds after Diarra got within a metre of him. That was one of the few decisions the referee got correct as generally I thought he disrupted the flow of the game way too much. To be fair to him, there were a lot of fouls in the second-half – I dunno if that was down to the weather conditions making it harder for players to stay on their feet or Slavia becoming more cynical, in truth it was probably a combination of both. We finally had our first meaningful effort of the night as a cross was sent in from the right and Diaby cleverly left it for Bendtner, whose shot was deflected wide for a corner. Speaking of corners, tonight we were undeniably poor with our delivery, barely threatening the Slavia goal. Theo in particular overhit a few in the first-half.
With three-quarters of the game gone we nearly created our first clear-cut opening as Diaby fed the ball into the box for Eduardo, but the stretching Crozilian could not divert the ball goalwards and took a knock in the process. The last thing we wanted was an injury, something which was a distinct possibility given the deterioration of the conditions in the second-half. Thankfully he ran it off and seemed okay.
The home side had their second penalty shout waved away and once again it was Diarra who was in danger of conceding the spot-kick. Just like the last incident, however, it was never a pen. Diarra did very well to cover across from his right-back position and intercept the ball as it came into the danger area. For a central midfielder by trade he makes a fine full-back. He is some player and was by far and away the most impressive Gooner on the pitch.
With 15 minutes remaining Slavia launched a ball over the top that caught our defence napping. Fortunately Almunia sprinted off his line and smothered the Slavia player’s attempt to lift it over him. People faulted him for United’s second goal on the weekend (I wasn’t one of them), and I felt he did well here to temporarily silence the critics, showing good bravery in the process. His days as Arsenal’s no.1 are numbered though – not because of his performances per se, but because like Alex Song he is much-maligned and often the brunt of fans’ frustrations.
The final exchanges of the match saw Arsenal exert more pressure as the teams’ relative fitness levels began to tell. Slavia could have nicked it though as they were presented with a free-kick just outside Arsenal’s box after the referee blew harshly for a foul against Denilson for obstruction. The position was perfect for a left-footer and it nearly proved so when Daniel Pudil whipped in a low one that was headed for the bottom corner, but thankfully it clipped the heels of one of his own team-mates and went behind for a goal kick. Relief.
By this time Ade and Eboue had come on for Bendtner and Eduardo, a move which saw Theo join the Togo man up-front for the remainder of the game. And it was the Ade who had our first effort on target with 5 minutes to go, leaping to meet a cross but his downward header falling too close to the keeper. A few yards either side and we would have walked away with the most unlikely and undeserved of victories. The pain was prolonged when the fourth official signalled 5 minutes of injury time; lord knows where the ref manufactured that from. It passed without much action though, and Arsenal had sealed their place in the last 16 of Europe’s premier competition with a point.
Some will call it a disappointing performance; others will call it a battling one. I’d say it was both: the first-half was disappointing but the second-half was battling, especially with it raining cats and dogs. Nonetheless, we are through to the next stage. A win would have been nice as it would have taken the pressure off the trip to Seville, but now we travel there knowing that we need at least a point to harbour any realistic hopes of topping the group. I feel this will be very important this season as the majority of big teams look like they will finish first in their groups and so it is important we avoid them next up. I am particularly talking about Barcelona, because I have a sneaky feeling that if we end up second in our group we will cross swords with them in the next round. Call it fate.
I’ve already singled out Diarra for special praise, that was only his third appearance for us and for all three of them I’ve made him my Top Gun. In contrast to Diarra’s performance was Gilberto’s. Sure it was a horrible match to play in, especially the second-half. But the noticeable difference between his relative static-ness and Flamini’s fast-tempo game was plain to see. Combine Gilberto’s tactical wherewithal and positional sense and the Flamster’s high-energy and all-action game and who do you get? One Lassana Diarra.
If you’ve made it this far into reading a match report on the most drab and dire games in a long while then you’ve done well. That was painful viewing and trying to recall the events of the game has been painful for me too. But you know what they say: no pain, no gain. And seeing as how we have relatively breezed through most of the season so far, sometimes we need to endure a bit of pain as it makes the pleasure a whole lot more satisfying.