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Ramsey’s late goal puts Arsenal in pole position

Marseille 0 Arsenal 1

Ramsey 90+2

Arsenal‘s first clean sheet in 18 Champions League away games and an injury time goal by substitute Aaron Ramsey were enough to beat an uninspired Marseille side in a largely forgettable game at the Stade Vélodrome. Victory moved the Gunners to the top of group F at the midway stage with seven points, one ahead of the French side.

Arsène Wenger made two changes from the side which beat Sunderland 2-1 on Sunday. André Santos replaced the injured Kieran Gibbs (strained stomach muscle) at left back, while Andrey Arshavin started on the left side of attack instead of Gervinho. Tomáš Rosický retained his place in midfield ahead of fit-again Aaron Ramsey.

Szczęsny

Jenkinson – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Santos

Song – Arteta

Rosický

Walcott – van Persie – Arshavin

Marseille started the evening two points ahead of Arsenal in group F with a 100% record from their first two matches. However, their league form has been poor, with just one win in ten games this season.

Ramsey (centre) celebrates his late winner with Koscielny and Santos (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

A show of hands

A moderately entertaining first half produced a smattering of chances at both ends but no goals, as both teams showed flashes of promise but too often lacked the quality in the final third. It could, however, have been very different if any of three contentious handball incidents had been punished by the officials.

Jenkinson caught the eye with several surging runs (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

After a promising start in which full backs André Santos and Carl Jenkinson both showed a willingness to get forward, Arsenal struggled to control the ball in midfield as Marseille pressed them successfully all across the field. Jenkinson, who otherwise played very well, was lucky not to concede a penalty in the 14th minute when a cross hit his trailing arm as he tracked back into his own box.

However, the officials missed an even clearer handball seven minutes later when Mikel Arteta‘s corner was deflected by Souleymane Diawara‘s hand. Play continued and the ball found its way to Robin van Persie, whose looping header was cleared off the line by Diawara.

Neither defence looked overly comfortable in the opening period. A ten-minute spell of Marseille pressure put Arsenal’s leaky back line under the spotlight. Loïc Rémy nutmegged Per Mertesacker on the by-line, only for Jenkinson to get in a critical block. Remy sprung the offside track, but Laurent Koscielny made a fantastic covering tackle. Lucho González touched Mathieu Valbuena‘s cross wide from six yards.

However Arsenal withstood the examination although Santos, who looked off the pace throughout, was lucky not to receive a second yellow card for a careless handball on the stroke of half-time. But, in keeping with the events of the rest of the half, it was a handball which went unpunished.

Ramsey provides the late, late show

Arsenal started the second half positively as they managed to string some decent spells of possession together, but neither side was able to carve open a clear opening for the best part of 20 minutes. Even then it required a defensive error, as Tomáš Rosický played in Theo Walcott. He skipped past a poor challenge by Nicolas N’Koulou, only for goalkeeper Steve Mandanda to keep out his shot with his foot.

As the half progressed and Marseille’s tempo and ambition faltered, Arsenal looked increasingly comfortable in all areas of the pitch. The French side became increasingly pedestrian, and with Koscielny in dominant form at the heart of defence Wojciech Szczęsny was effectively a spectator.

Ramsey took his goal coolly to send Arsenal top of group F (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

In the game’s final quarter it became increasingly apparent that victory was there to be taken by a confident team. But Arsenal are currently not a confident team, and although they dominated both possession and territory they struggled to mount any consistent threat on Mandanda’s goal. Indeed it was not until the closing minutes that Marseille’s keeper was called into action again, getting his angles right to keep out van Persie’s drive.

But there was still time for one final moment of drama involving all three of Arsenal’s substitutes. With 92 minutes showing on the clock, Koscielny stepped forward for the umpteenth time to intercept in midfield. Arsenal moved the ball around patiently in midfield, finally shifting it out to Johan Djourou (on for the injured Jenkinson) wide on the right. His excellent diagonal cross to the edge of the area was miscontrolled by Gervinho and broke free to the unmarked Aaron Ramsey. The Wales captain had time to take a steadying touch before calmly slotting home from 15 yards.

It was virtually the last kick of what had been a fairly scrappy game. But it was enough to put Arsenal within one more win of all but securing their qualification for the knockout stages.

Post-match reaction and analysis

After the game, Arsène Wenger told ITV’s Ned Boulting how Ramsey’s goal was important for the team:

For the qualification certainly it’s a very important goal – for the confidence as well. It was a game where it was a bit scrappy, where we needed to be patient. Marseille defended in a very disciplined way, it was difficult to create chances but you could feel in the last 15 minutes that we started to create opportunities.

We showed patience and discipline. Everybody questioned how well we would cope defensively tonight and I think overall we did well.

When asked what he can take forward from a scrappy win, he replied:

The spirit is good, the attitude is right and slowly our game becomes stronger. We go from game to game and we grow slowly as a team.

In his post-match press conference, he expanded on the nature of Jenkinson’s injury, which saw him taken off after an hour:

He has a knee problem. He overstretched his knee and we will check that tomorrow.

And he commented on the importance of both Ramsey’s goal and his reasons for not rushing him back into the starting line-up:

It was a great finish, you see Ramsey in front of goal and you know you have a good chance to score. He is a goalscorer.

I do not want to overplay him. I have seen in my mind that he had been injured for a year. Wilshere played a lot last year [and is now injured]. I try to be a bit more cautious when I can.

This was far from being an easy game on the eye. Indeed for long periods of the second half it was downright boring. But Wenger was right to praise his side’s patience, discipline and spirit. On a night when they were never fluent and on which the lack of contribution from both wide attackers – Andrey Arshavin and Theo Walcott – was frankly embarrassing, leaving Robin van Persie a forlorn and isolated figure up front for long stretches, the rest of the team knuckled down and focussed on ensuring they achieved the minimum required result, namely avoiding defeat.

Koscielny was an obvious selection as man of the match (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

There were times in the first half when Wojciech Szczęsny‘s clean sheet was preserved only by a combination of bad finishing and last-ditch challenges, but to shut out a side – albeit one low on confidence – which contains attacking talent such as Loïc RémyAndré Ayew and Benoît Cheyrou is no mean feat. And certainly in the second half, aside from one scrappy scramble in the penalty area, it is hard to remember a genuine heart-in-mouth moment. Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker forged an effective combination in the middle, and although the German’s lack of mobility was exposed on a couple of occasions the Frenchman put in the kind of performance he gave against Barcelona last season. Carl Jenkinson was solid defensively and lively coming forward, and Wenger will be praying his knee injury is not serious. Of the back four only André Santos had a game he will want to forget. A bullish addition to the attack, his defensive positioning was lackadaisical at best, and downright negligent at worst. Nonetheless, ending a run of 17 away games in Europe in which they had failed to keep a clean sheet was a considerable monkey to get off the team’s back.

In the middle of the field Alex Song put in a solid, bustling shift despite a silly early booking, while Tomáš Rosický showed plenty of energy trying to drive the team forward in the hole behind van Persie. Mikel Arteta‘s performance – a few well-delivered corners aside – was disappointing in an attacking sense, but he worked hard defensively. Van Persie showed good movement throughout, but had few chances to really shine.

The only glaring thing missing from this performance was overall confidence of the type that the team displayed in the first 25 minutes after van Persie’s early goal on Sunday. An Arsenal side in full flow would probably have won this game comfortably by at least two goals. Nonetheless win they did, and for all the lack of style evident in much of this game it was still their fifth win in the last six games. Arsenal remain a long way from where they want – and need – to be. But there is no crisis here now, no matter what the media say about it.

It is back to the comfort of the Emirates Stadium for Arsenal’s next two matches, as they look to extend a sequence of five home wins in all competitions. Stoke are the visitors on Sunday lunchtime, with Bolton to follow in the Carling Cup fourth round. For now, however, Arsenal can travel home looking back on a hard-fought win with some satisfaction.

Arsenal man of the match: Laurent Koscielny. Rock-solid as the last line of defence, with a series of outstanding tackles and interceptions.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

3 Responses to Ramsey’s late goal puts Arsenal in pole position

  1. Sheree says:

    Caught a bit of the match after my English class including the last gasp goal. L’Equipe agreed with your man of the man, but he only scored a “6” along with Szczesny and Jenkinson. OM’s highest scoring player, more tellingly, was their goalkeeper Mandanda, who scored a “7” along with Nkoulou.

    • Tim says:

      I’m amazed Szczesny scored the same as Koscielny. I don’t remember him actually having to make a meaningful save in the entire match!

      Mandanda certainly made a couple of sharp saves, and I understand he has been important in their previous CL games too. Offensively, I thought Valbuena gave us all kinds of trouble in the first half – in part because Santos cannot defend properly – but in the second half Marseille disappeared completely as an attacking force.

      A draw would have been perfectly respectable (and arguably the fairer result). I’m ecstatic to have won.

  2. Pingback: Stalemate as Arsenal edge closer to Champions League progression « The armchair sports fan

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