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Song calls the tune as Arsenal top their Champions League group

Arsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 1

van Persie 49, 86; Kagawa 90+2

A brace of second half goals by Robin van Persie – the first set up by a wondrous dribble by Alex Song – secured victory over Borussia Dortmund and booked Arsenal‘s passage into the knockout stages of this season’s Champions League with a game to spare. With Marseille losing at home it was also enough to confirm them as group winners, maximising their chance of a favourable draw for the round-of-16 in February.

Both sides fielded the same XIs which won away from home last Saturday. Arsène Wenger retained the team who won 2-1 at Norwich, with Laurent Koscielny continuing to stand in at right back – a cosmopolitan line-up consisting of 11 different nationalities. Dortmund were also unchanged from side who impressively won 1-0 at Bayern Munich.

Szczęsny

Koscielny  – Mertesacker – Vermaelen – Santos

Song – Arteta

Ramsey

Walcott – van Persie – Gervinho

Arsenal drew 1-1 in Dortmund in the opening game of the group phase after Ivan Perišić‘s late wonder strike cancelled out van Persie’s first half opener.

Stalemate

Both teams worked industriously in a first half which was high on effort but largely devoid of excitement. Arsenal and Dortmund are among the more attack-minded sides in Europe, but the first period instead showcased their defensive qualities.

Walcott was Arsenal's sole consistent threat in the first half (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Dortmund enjoyed much the better of the opening 15 minutes. They pressed high up the field to disrupt Arsenal’s passing game and swarmed towards Wojciech Szczęsny‘s goal with both numbers and purpose when in possession. However, aside from a couple of tame long-range efforts, the home side were able to contain their threat comfortably enough.

With time a rare commodity in a busy midfield and Gervinho a peripheral figure on the left flank, Theo Walcott was consistently Arsenal’s main outlet. Midway through the half Aaron Ramsey clipped a neat ball over the top to spring the England winger beyond Dortmund’s back four, but goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller was quickly off his line to smother the ball. Walcott was later put clear by Robin van Persie, but was correctly called back after straying half a yard offside.

The visitors’ cause was not aided by the departure of Sven Bender (broken jaw) and playmaker Mario Götze before the half-hour mark, after which Arsenal seemed to gain the upper hand in the midfield stalemate. Only a late flurry in the closing moments livened up an otherwise moribund half. Marcel Schmelzer fired a 20-yarder straight into Szczęsny’s gloves, while at the other end Walcott’s curling cross required a decisive intervention from Weidenfeller to prevent a van Persie tap-in.

Van Persie strikes again (and again)

Again Dortmund were lively at the start of the second half. They found space down both flanks early on, with Shinji Kagawa testing Szczęsny’s alertness from a tight angle.

Van Persie capped Song's mazy run with the game's opening goal (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

But Arsenal were quick to respond with an opening goal of the highest class. Alex Song picked up the ball on the left and dribbled through three defenders before hanging up an inviting cross to the far post to a back-pedalling van Persie, who rose just high enough to direct his header down and in off Weidenfeller’s fingertips.

The goal seemed to rock Dortmund back on their heels as Arsenal began to exert control for the first time in the game. Gervinho should have put the game beyond doubt on the hour after being played through one-on-one, but he hesitated and the ball was scrambled away. Walcott shot narrowly wide from the edge of the box.

Dortmund pressed forward in the final half-hour but struggled to muster a significant threat. Solid in defence and compact and disciplined in midfield, Arsenal had little difficulty in repelling the visitors’ attacks.

It was left to Arsenal’s captain to emphatically seal the Gunners’ place in the knockout rounds with five minutes left. A Mikel Arteta free kick was deflected behind. The Spaniard took the resultant corner himself, Thomas Vermaelen flicked it on at the near post and van Persie was left with the simple task of sweeping the ball in unchallenged. It was a goal straight out of the George Graham playbook of the 1980s.

Kagawa did manage to score a consolation goal with virtually the last kick of the game, but the denial of a clean sheet was no more than a minor inconvenience. Combined with Marseille’s defeat at home to Olympiacos victory confirmed Arsenal as winners of group F, ensuring a tie against a group runner-up in the last 16. Equally importantly for Arsenal fans, it means they will avoid Barcelona in the next round after their win in Milan guaranteed they would win their group.

Arsenal are the only one of the four English teams to secure qualification with a game to spare, with Manchester City’s fate depending on assistance from others. Not many would have predicted that two months ago, and it is a sign of how quickly the team have progressed that they have done so.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsène Wenger was pleased with the result and to be the first English side to qualify for this season’s knockout phase with a game in hand:

Overall it was a good game, Dortmund are a good team. They started stronger than we did but we needed to be patient, intelligent and I think in the second half we increased the tempo of our passing and controlled the game. Slowly you could feel that we could make the difference.

We were in a difficult group and I am very happy and pleased if you see where we came from. We drew Udinese in the qualifier and you could not bet that we could go like we did. Overall I am very happy because we came out from a very difficult period because we were focused, worked hard and were united together.

Manchester United could have qualified last night and of course everybody expected Man City to qualify but we are the first team. It’s difficult at this level against anybody – you never win an easy game in the Champions League. I have played 150 games as a manager in the Champions League and every single game gives you a different problem.

He reiterated his praise for his in-form captain van Persie:

He is in a period where of course he doesn’t have to look for goals – they just come naturally for him. He is always in the right place at the right moment and he got two goals again tonight from positions that look easy but they are not. He just understands the game so well.

At the moment I believe that Robin is an exceptional player. He takes advantage of our offensive style from the wings. We create a lot of chances but I don’t deny that at the moment he is the one who scores all the goals. We hope we can keep him fit and with us for a long time.

And he was also delighted with the way Per Mertesacker bounced back from his mistake at Norwich:

I thought he had a great game tonight. I tried to analyse his performance against Norwich and I felt he was more tired from the Germany game against Holland. He didn’t make bad decisions but his reaction time was not right. It was more down to fatigue.

Song put in a man-of-the-match performance (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

After a subdued start in which they struggled to string a meaningful sequence of passes together, Arsenal were patient, did not panic and gradually established themselves in the game, aided by Bender’s and Götze’s early withdrawal. The midfield trio – and in particular Alex Song – was key to their eventual dominance. The Cameroon international popped up all over the field to deny Dortmund players space and time on the ball, and of course provided the game’s one truly magical moment with his assist for the opening goal. Neither Aaron Ramsey nor Mikel Arteta were spectacular, but they were both disciplined, efficient and effective.

It was good to see Per Mertesacker put in a solid and assured performance at the back after his catastrophic lapse at Carrow Road. He and Vermaelen were rarely troubled throughout. Laurent Koscielny again put in a strong showing at right back, while André Santos was also diligent in his defensive duties.

Up front, van Persie’s rich vein of scoring form continued as he moved to 12 goals in his last eight games in all competitions. Walcott also shone, with his pace offering a valuable outlet when Arsenal were under the cosh, and his speed and choice of pass carving out a number of promising openings. He has always been a player who steadily improves with a run of games in the side, and his current form is as good as we have ever seen from him in an Arsenal shirt.

Gervinho was the sole disappointment on the night, looking out of sorts throughout. His first touch was terrible, and he seemed a yard off the pace and generally on a different wavelength to his teammates. But overall this was a fine performance by a team which continues to improve with every passing game.

Arsenal’s next two games are both at home. They host Fulham on Saturday evening before a Carling Cup quarter-final clash against Manchester City next Tuesday. Many of the starting line-up are likely to be rested for the latter game, as they will be for the trip to Olympiacos the following mid-week. It is a rest they will have thoroughly earned after their smooth passage through the group stage.

Arsenal man of the match: Alex Song. Fashioned a fantastic dribble and cross for the opening goal. He gradually asserted control over midfield as the game progressed, screening the back four adeptly with a series of timely tackles and interceptions.

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

One Response to Song calls the tune as Arsenal top their Champions League group

  1. Pingback: Arsenal lose tempo, rhythm and two points in draw with Fulham « The armchair sports fan

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