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Arsenal show substance as Perišić wonder goal leaves honours even

Borussia Dortmund 1 Arsenal 1

Perišić 88; van Persie 42

A late volley by substitute Ivan Perišić earned Borussia Dortmund a share of the points in a game they had dominated for long stretches. Although they fully deserved a point, it was nonetheless tough luck on an Arsenal side who had defended with grit and determination after taking the lead through Robin van Persie‘s strike just before half-time. In the cold light of day, both teams will probably be satisfied to have finished with honours even.

The two sides had already previously met in the Champions League group stage. In the 2002/03 competition, Arsenal won 2-0 at Highbury before losing 2-1 in the away leg to a Dortmund side which featured Jens Lehmann in goal, with both their goals being scored by one Tomáš Rosický.

Rosický missed out on the chance to face his old side, having failed to recover sufficiently from a knee problem. Aaron Ramsey also did not travel after picking up an ankle knock against Swansea, restricting Arsène Wenger‘s already limited options in midfield. As a result loanee Yossi Benayoun was handed his first start alongside Mikel Arteta and the returning Alex Song. Wenger himself was serving the first of a two-game European touchline ban as Arsenal lined up as follows:

Szczęsny

Sagna – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Gibbs

Song – Benayoun

Arteta

Walcott – van Persie – Gervinho

Dortmund dominate, but sloppiness gifts Arsenal the lead

With both teams showing attacking formations and philosophies, the match got off to a flowing and pacy start. In the first ten minutes alone, Gervinho worked two openings but could not get a clean shot away on either occasion, while Kevin Grosskreutz and the lively Shinji Kagawa should have done better in blazing excellent opportunities off target.

Again and again during the opening period Dortmund proved adept at evading Arsenal’s high defensive line and causing major problems with their pace and directness. Wojciech Szczęsny was grateful for Bacary Sagna‘s goalline intervention after Mario Götze‘s clever ball had put Robert Lewandowski clean through. And the big Polish keeper was equally pleased that a couple of good headed chances were directed straight at him, while other attempts flew wide of the target. But on the whole the home side looked by far the more dangerous, with the combination of Götze’s passing and Kagawa’s intelligent running stretching Arsenal’s defence to breaking point.

For half an hour Arsenal’s midfield were repeatedly overrun, and as a team possession was often too easily conceded in dangerous positions. The front three were largely reduced to the role of spectators. In terms of possession in dangerous positions and attacking intent, it was very much one-way traffic.

Van Persie's clinical strike gave Arsenal an unexpected lead (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

However, there were just enough promising moments to offer the visitors a glimmer of hope. Mikel Arteta was unspectacular but efficient in possession, and Yossi Benayoun diligent in chasing back to help out his defence. And Dortmund’s high back line offered plenty of open space for both Gervinho and Walcott to run into. From one such moment just after the half hour, the visitors registered their first shot on target. Benayoun lifted an inviting ball over the top for Robin van Persie to race on to, but his angled shot on the run was touched behind by Roman Weidenfeller.

For all their threat, Dortmund had been warned. And they proved to be their own worst enemy as an error gifted Arsenal the opening goal. Van Persie seized on a sloppy, underhit pass by captain Sebastian Kehl and immediately raced forward. Theo Walcott, who had been nigh on invisible to that point, laid on a sensational defence-splitting pass for the Dutchman to strike a fierce drive from the edge of the box past Weidenfeller with his weaker right leg.

It wasn’t quite daylight robbery, but Arsenal’s half-time lead was certainly unexpected and very much against the run of play.

A spirited rearguard action falls at the last

Dortmund continued to press after half-time, but despite all their pressure Szczęsny had little to do as the visitors rolled up their sleeves and poured their energies into defending their lead – a quality which has too often been lacking from recent Arsenal sides. Alex Song in particular put in an immense performance in the second half, tracking runners, winning balls all over the field and generally disrupting the hosts’ rhythm in a way which Arsenal fans are used to seeing opposing teams do to them.

And the massed defending did not come at the total expense of a goal threat. Either side of the hour mark, Walcott hurriedly scooped a shot well over when he had time to compose himself, and then Gervinho broke free up the middle but as he stumbled and broke free of a tackle he couldn’t get the ball under control quickly enough, allowing Weidenfeller to charge off his line and block.

Szczęsny preserved a point with a crucial late save (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Though rarely desperate, Arsenal’s rearguard action became increasingly fraught as the game entered its final ten minutes. Neven Subotić wasted a great opportunity at a scramble after a corner, poking an effort straight at Szczęsny. But just as it looked like time would run out on the Germans, with just two minutes remaining a free kick was headed clear straight to Ivan Perišić, whose first-time volley from outside the area arrowed its way into the top corner. The goal extended Arsenal’s run of away games in the Champions League without a clean sheet to 17.

Dortmund nearly stole all three points at the death, as first Szczęsny raced off his line to deny Lewandowski and then Laurent Koscielny put in a vital block against substitute Mohamed Zidan. On the balance of play, Dortmund could argue that they were worth more than a point. However, Arsenal equally deserved to get something out of the game for van Persie’s clinical finish and their stalwart efforts in defence. With Marseille winning at 1-0 at Olympiakos a draw was not the ideal result for either team, but both will take encouragement from an unbeaten start to their European campaigns. 1-1 was a perfectly good result.

Post-match reaction and analysis

With Wenger’s touchline ban extending to post-match conferences, assistant manager Pat Rice faced the press after the game. He said:

We battled really hard and we knew it would be a hard, hard game. To be able to defend well is a high-quality skill and that is something all of our players did this evening. I shouldn’t think many teams will come to Dortmund and beat them and we were very, very close to doing that.

Despite being forced on to the back foot for much of the 90 minutes, there are a lot of positives to take out of this performance. Arsenal teams over the years have shown plenty of flair in matches they have failed to win, but here exhibited real grit and substance in a game in which they were dominated but managed to avoid defeat (and indeed so nearly win). Szczęsny exudes confidence which in turn boosts the defenders in front of him. He commanded his box well and continues to excel in one-on-one situations. In front of him, the back four manned the barricades redoubtably, although Koscielny did have some problems with his distribution, an issue often exacerbated by Kieran Gibbs‘ poor positioning. The left back had an awful game – he contributed little in attack, was often caught too far forward creating inviting spaces for Kagawa in particular to operate in and generally exhibited both poor passing and positional sense.

The midfield particularly struggled in the first half-hour, but seemed to gel as the game progressed. Arteta was efficient rather than expansive, but was excellent at retaining possession and moving the ball on to others. Benayoun worked his socks off defensively, while constantly trying to form a bridge between defence and attack. And Song was a dominant figure, particularly in the second half where he kept his cool and always seemed to be exactly where he was needed.

Van Persie took his chance superbly, and although he did not see much of the ball linked up play well. Gervinho was a constant threat with his unpredictability, although he did tend to cut inside into traffic too often rather than attempting to beat his defender on the outside. Walcott did contribute a lovely assist for the goal, but this was otherwise one of those frustrating nights where he could not get into the game, and too often immediately gave the ball away on those occasions when he did. For all his undoubted strengths – pace, a good goal-scoring rate from the wing and the ability to put in decent deliveries (albeit inconsistently) – the flaws in his game remain all too apparent: a lack of trickery to beat defenders, a tendency to drift out of games and he is still all too easy to brush off the ball.

But this game was more than the sum of individual performances. A still under-strength, still unfamiliar side pulled together as a unit and worked for each other for 90 minutes, and although they were denied the win at the very end, this was not down to the collective failure of character we witnessed at home to Liverpool or at Newcastle last season, or even at Old Trafford 2½ weeks ago. It was just one of those things – just one of those goals you can only admire and praise through gritted teeth. For once Arsenal prioritised substance over style, and that is certainly a step in the right direction.

Man of the match: Alex Song

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Tour of Britain stages 1-3: Manx Missile and Boom win explosive sprints

A cancelled second stage of the Tour of Britain (due to the effects of Hurricane Katia) was sandwiched by a contrasting pair of sprint victories by ‘Manx Missile’ Mark Cavendish and Rabobank time trial specialist Lars Boom. Both finishes underlined the importance of effective teamwork as HTC-Highroad manoeuvred Cavendish into position to take an easy stage one win, while bungled team tactics by Sky contributed significantly to Boom’s victory.

Stage 1: Peebles to Dumfries, 170.3km

In cool, damp conditions about as far removed as it is possible to get from the extreme heat which forced him out of the Vuelta a España, there was to be no raining on Cavendish‘s parade as he headed a convincing one-two for HTC-Highroad.

The strongest ever line-up at the Tour of Britain set off from Peebles boasting both Cavendish, the sport’s dominant big race sprinter, and the world champion’s jersey of Garmin-Cervélo’s Thor Hushovd. Also present in the 95-strong field were fan favourite Jens Voigt (Leopard-Trek) and a strong British contingent led by the Sky trio of Geraint Thomas, Ben Swift and 2008 runner-up Steve Cummings.

Renshaw's lead-out skills set up an easy win for Cavendish (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The stage through the Borders region took in three third category climbs, including the wonderfully named Devil’s Beef Tub, before a finishing loop into Dumfries. A two-man break of Russell Hampton (Sigma Sport) and Pieter Ghyllebert (An Post) built an early lead of over six minutes before the inevitable chase led by HTC and Sky organised itself, which reeled in the pair with 10km remaining despite a pause after a crash brought down several riders and forced Voigt to abandon with a broken finger.

The charge to the finish was complicated by wet roads, a sharp right-hand corner at 250 metres to go and the fact that six-man teams make it difficult for any one team to have enough numbers to chase down a break and then provide a full lead-out for their sprinter. HTC-Highroad had been prominent in the chase, with Matt Brammeier, Alex Rasmussen and then Lars Bak driving the peloton forwards, with the familiar team of Bernhard Eisel and Mark Renshaw holding back to pilot Cavendish through to the finish. They and Rabobank led the way into the last kilometre, with Cavendish glued to Renshaw’s rear wheel.

The Aussie held back, allowing the Rabobank pair of Lars Boom and Theo Bos to lead into the final corner before hitting the afterburners to move his teammate into position to launch the final sprint, at which point the result was settled. Cavendish won by around three lengths, with Renshaw cruising over the line in second ahead of Bos. Sky’s Thomas and Swift were fifth and seventh respectively.

Cavendish later paid tribute to the large crowds who had lined the route despite the inclement conditions:

We had wicked support today. The amount of cheers and banners along the stage was brilliant. It’s very different to when I last raced here in 2007. It’s very nice. This event is certainly growing.

The win marked the 500th victory for HTC-Highroad’s senior men’s and women’s squads in less than four years. They have won more races than any other team over that period but will disband at the end of the 2011 season. Having delivered so many of those wins himself, it was fitting that Cavendish should register this significant milestone and become the first wearer of the race leader’s gold jersey.

Stage 1 result:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 4:41:06

2. Mark Renshaw (HTC-Highroad) same time

3. Theo Bos (Rabobank) s/t

4. Barry Markus (Vacansoleil-DCM) s/t

5. Geraint Thomas (Sky) s/t

Stage 2: Kendal to Blackpool, 137.7km

The stage was cancelled due to concerns over rider safety after heavy winds and rainfall had scattered debris over parts of the day’s route. The riders completed a parade lap around Kendal to reward fans who had shown up to watch the start.

Stage 3: Stoke-on-Trent, 140km

On a difficult windy day, Lars Boom led Rabobank teammate Michael Matthews across the finish line to take both the stage and the gold jersey after a 28-man group had created a decisive split over the rest of the peloton. British riders occupied the next five places as Sky’s Geraint Thomas and Steve Cummings squeezed Mark Cavendish into fifth.

The day’s initial break again included Sigma Sport’s Russell Hampton. He was joined by Andrew Fenn (An Post) and Boy Van Poppel (UnitedHealthcare), as the trio build a lead of 3½ minutes approaching the mid-point of the stage. Shortly after, Sky ramped up the pace to reel in the break which, coupled with stiff crosswinds, caused the peloton to fracture into several groups. The lead chase group of around 25 riders included Boom and Matthews, Cavendish and all six Sky riders. They soon caught the earlier break and were able to maintain a decisive advantage over the rest of the peloton.

Boom profited from Sky's tactics to neutralise Cavendish

With a clear numerical advantage, Sky’s plan for negating Cavendish was to send Alex Dowsett out on an individual attack with 17km remaining. He quickly built a dangerous 25-second lead, forcing others in the group to burn energy leading the chase while the other Sky riders were able to benefit from a free ride. After a draining pursuit, Dowsett was eventually caught with about a kilometre to go. In a scrappy run in to a twisting finish, Sky set up to lead out the sprint but were taken by surprise as Boom – whose normal role is as a time-trialist and a lead-out for others – hit the front into the closing S-bends and led teammate Matthews to take the win.

Boom later confirmed the original plan had been to lead out Matthews, but was delighted to have won anyway as he seemed to be much stronger than his teammate over the long final sprint:

With 200 metres to go I managed to jump over Cummings and Thomas and then the corners started so they couldn’t pass us any more.  My first aim was to pull for Michael (Matthews) and then I felt good so I am happy to win.

We knew that you can’t bring HTC and Cavendish or the Sky boys to the finish.  We knew we would have to surprise them, and we managed to do that. I am going to try and defend the jersey and win the overall, that is the goal now.

It was a somewhat embarrassing finale for Sky, whose force of numbers should have enabled them to set up a decisive lead-out for either Geraint Thomas or Ben Swift having gained the tactical advantage by putting Dowsett out front on his own.

With the main peloton finishing nearly four minutes behind, the overall race winner will now almost certainly come from the group of 25 riders clustered within 39 seconds of overall leader Boom. The next three days’ racing will further shape the general classification, with each day featuring at least one first category climb. Stage four tomorrow takes the race down through Wales, crossing the Brecon Beacons before finishing in Caerphilly. Stage five through Devon features three categorised climbs in succession in the first third of the route. And finally Friday’s sixth stage includes two tough first category climbs in the last 60km before finishing in Wells. By then the field of genuine contenders should have been reduced to a handful.

Stage 3 result:

1. Lars Boom (Rabobank) 3:23:42

2. Michael Matthews (Rabobank) same time

3. Geraint Thomas (Sky) s/t

4. Steve Cummings (Sky) s/t

5. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) s/t

General classification:

1. Lars Boom (Rabobank) 8:04:35

2. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) +0:03

3. Geraint Thomas (Sky) +0:06

4. Michael Matthews (Rabobank) +0:07

5. Boy Van Poppel (UnitedHealthcare) +0:08

Link: Tour of Britain official website

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