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Arsenal unaffected by defeat as Olympiacos suffer Greek tragedy

Olympiacos 3 Arsenal 1

Djebbour 16, Fuster 36, Modesto 89; Benayoun 57

Olympiakos dominated a second-string Arsenal side to earn a deserved victory in their final Champions League group game. However a remarkable turnaround by Marseille, who scored twice late on to win in Dortmund, turned the mood in Piraeus from triumph to tragedy as the Greek side found themselves consigned to the Europa League rather than the knockout stages of Europe’s premier club competition.

With Arsenal already through to the last 16 as group winners, Arsène Wenger rang the changes to give most of his regulars a deserved rest, with only Thomas Vermaelen and André Santos retained from the side which won 4-0 at Wigan on Saturday.

Fabiański

Djourou – Squillaci – Vermaelen – Santos

Frimpong – Coquelin

Benayoun

Oxlade-Chamberlain – Chamakh – Arshavin

Arsenal had beaten Olympiacos at Emirates Stadium in September, as early goals by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and André Santos secured a nervy 2-1 win.

Two wobbly keepers, two goals conceded

Fabiański endured a wobbly 25 minutes before going off injured (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Olympiacos, needing a win and cheered on by a vociferous home crowd, unsurprisingly pressed hard from the start. Barely a minute had passed when a poor clearance by Łukasz Fabiański almost gifted them a golden chance. The Greek side’s energetic approach made it difficult for the visitors to get their passing game going, while coming forward they repeatedly exposed Johan Djourou‘s questionable positioning at right back.

Nonetheless Arsenal created the early chances. Andrey Arshavin sent Marouane Chamakh scampering down the right and received the return pass, but Hungarian goalkeeper Balázs Megyeri was quickly off his line to block. Emmanuel Frimpong‘s snap shot from just inside the box brushed the side netting.

However it was Olympiacos who struck first, courtesy of some questionable Arsenal defending. Djourou and Sébastien Squillaci got in each other’s way trying to deal with an innocuous-looking through ball for Rafik Djebbour, and a deflection put it in the perfect spot for the Algerian forward to take it around Fabiański and slot home.

Midway through the half Fabiański and Vermaelen collided as they dealt with another dangerous cross from the left. The Polish goalkeeper was stretchered off, to be replaced by Vito Mannone.

Mannone lost his bearings and attempted to kick instead of catching (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Arsenal’s most promising moments largely centred on the pace and power of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The teenage winger had already embarked on an earlier cross-field run when Chamakh released him down the right. He crossed to the far post, from where a stretching volley by Yossi Benayoun flashed wide.

Minutes later, Arsenal went further behind. The home side’s hard work off the ball again paid dividends as a pass out of defence to Frimpong was charged down. Mannone raced out of his box to head clear, but the ball fell to David Fuster who immediately prodded it gently towards goal. The flustered keeper, not realising he had already retreated back inside his area, tried to deal with it with his feet rather than simply catching it, air-kicked and watched in horror as the ball trickled into the open net.

2-0 was no more than Olympiacos deserved, and Arsenal were lucky not to concede a third before half-time. Djourou almost offered a goal up on a plate with a suicidal pass in his own box, and last-ditch blocks were required to prevent further shots on goal. Arsenal had been as sloppy as the Greeks had been industrious.

Victory is not enough for Olympiacos

Arsenal continued to be careless at the start of the second half. A weak defensive header by André Santos fell straight to François Modesto, who forced a decent save from Mannone. The Brazilian full back injured his ankle in the process and was forced off, with Ignasi Miquel coming on to replace him.

Benayoun's volley put Arsenal back in the game (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Olympiacos continued to press in search of an increasingly likely-looking third goal, with Arsenal at full stretch to contain them and barely able to get out of their own half. But when they did, they suddenly forced themselves back into the game. In their first meaningful attack of the second half, Chamakh chested down Miquel’s cross for the arriving Benayoun to lash in a fierce volley from the edge of the area. It was a fantastic strike entirely out of keeping with the visitors’ overall performance.

Arsenal’s foothold in the game was almost loosened immediately as Squillaci attempted to let a long ball bounce through to Mannone. But the Italian keeper was rooted to his line and slow to react, allowing Modesto to nip in with a header which somehow drifted wide.

Whether it was the fear of conceding a potentially fatal equaliser or a general dropping of energy levels, Olympiacos began to fade and Arsenal slowly began to assert themselves for the first time in the match. Benayoun played in substitute Tomáš Rosický with a subtle chip, but the Czech midfielder could not squeeze his shot over Megyeri.

However, in the closing minutes the hosts had plenty of chances to secure a two-goal cushion. Most notably, a close-range by Kevin Mirallas effort went straight at Mannone when a foot either side would have been a certain goal. But Modesto finally wrapped up the win in the 89th minute, tapping in after a header by former Aston Villa defender Olof Mellberg rebounded off the post.

The match, however, ended in virtual silence as two goals in the final six minutes by Marseille in Dortmund gave them a 3-2 win which elevated them above Olympiacos as group runners-up. Instead the Greek side will play in the Europa League in the new year.

Arsenal left the field in defeat, but the hard work had already been done. They will be one of the eight seeded teams in the draw for the last 16 a week on Friday, affording them a tie against a group runner-up with the benefit of playing the second leg at home.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsène Wenger admitted that the better team had won on the night:

We had the early chances but Olympiacos played a very committed game. They made it a good battle and we lost too many balls in the first half especially. We were a bit insecure.

Overall they were 2-0 up because they were sharper than we were. We came back to 2-1 and it looked more like we could level, but they scored the third goal.

I thought overall Olympiacos deserved to win the game.

However, he considered it to have been a positive experience for his younger players:

It’s a fantastic experience [for the young players]. They’ll realise what kind of intensity you need at that level. I still think, in patches, some young players have shown good things but, as a team, we missed a bit of maturity to keep the ball when we were under pressure.

Finally, the initial injury prognosis on André Santos was not good:

Santos suffered a bad ankle injury. He looks like he will be out for a while. We have Gibbs coming back in two to three weeks. Hopefully Santos will not be too long but, for Saturday against Everton, he looks to be short. We have as well Vermaelen who can play in his position.

Arsenal dominated possession but were outplayed by Olympiacos for the majority of the game and offered minimal attacking threat themselves. Although any assessment of the performance comes with the caveat of having already secured qualification, several of the senior backups merely confirmed their place in the pecking order rather than promote their case for more regular games.

The question marks which hang over both goalkeepers will remain after this game. Although Fabiański was not at fault for the opening goal, his kicking and general decision-making were erratic, and the contrast in confidence between him and the younger Wojciech Szczęsny was all too obvious. On the second goal Mannone paid dearly for his poor awareness of his position on the field, and he was reluctant to leave his goalline thereafter, with near-disastrous consequences on more than one occasion. With former starter Manuel Almunia out of favour, Arsenal remain an injury away from a full-blown goalkeeping crisis.

Other senior players also disappointed. Squillaci had performed well in the Carling Cup defeat to Manchester City last week, but looked  hesitant and out-of-sync throughout. Djourou’s lackadaisical positioning and distribution put his team in trouble on several occasions, and he was a clear weak link who Olympiacos repeatedly targeted. He remains sorely lacking in terms of the mental part of his game. Arshavin’s shoulders dropped early on, along with his work-rate. Chamakh was constantly a fraction too slow to react to any developing situation, and while his link-up play remains good he gives the impression of a man who no longer has any idea where the goal is. Only Benayoun put in a decent shift, albeit a largely anonymous one aside from his goal.

To say that the contribution made by the senior players in the side was disappointing would be an extreme understatement. The Israeli aside, it is hard to see any of the above challenging for regular games at any point this season, and more than one will be on their way out of the club, probably in the summer.

As for the three inexperienced youngsters in the side, Frimpong was energetic throughout although he did struggle at times. Francis Coquelin received quite a buffeting in midfield and struggled to impose himself. Only Oxlade-Chamberlain really broke free of the shackels at all, and while he provided some moments of genuine excitement and quality, the Greeks succeeded in keeping him quiet for long spells.

All in all, though, it was a good learning experience for the younger players to be involved in such a high intensity game in a hostile atmosphere. And Wenger will have added some mental notes as to which areas of his teams are still lacking in terms of quality and/or effort. A defeat, yes. A dead rubber, also yes. But a valuable learning experience nonetheless, and one which allowed him to rest most of his starters ahead of the game against Everton this weekend.

Arsenal man of the match: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Faded in and out of the game, but his pace, power and control threatened the Olympiacos defence as much as the rest of his teammates combined.

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

3 Responses to Arsenal unaffected by defeat as Olympiacos suffer Greek tragedy

  1. Subesh says:

    What a bad mistake it was from Vito!Really shocking.A defeat is always hard to take even when nothing is at stake.Anyways,lets win the games that count,starting from the match against Everton.Go gunners!

    • Tim says:

      Indeed. It was a poor error, but perhaps not so surprising given his lack of competitive games. But I would happily trade off defeat for the backups in a meaningless game for a win by the first team against Everton and then getting through the next two games (City away, Villa away) without a loss. We have to focus our efforts where they really matter.

  2. Pingback: Van Persie magic lights up Arsenal’s birthday party « The armchair sports fan

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