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Arsenal do it the hard way to secure Champions League football

West Brom 2 Arsenal 3

Long 11, Dorrans 15; Benayoun 4, Santos 30, Koscielny 54

Throughout their history, Arsenal have had a habit of doing things the hard way. The 1979 FA Cup final, where they let a 2-0 lead slip in the final five minutes only to snatch victory back at the death. The 1989 league decider at Anfield, which culminated in Michael Thomas’ last-gasp title-winner. Even the final game of the 2003/04 Invincibles season, where they had to come from behind at home to Leicester on the final day. This afternoon’s game at the Hawthorns fell into the same category, as Arsenal contrived to take the lead and fall behind in the first 15 minutes, and needed two crucial interventions in the dying moments to preserve a 3-2 win which secured third place and guaranteed automatic entry into the Champions League group phase next season.
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High-five for Arsenal as van Persie shreds Chelsea’s defence

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 5

Lampard 14, Terry 45, Mata 80; van Persie 36, 85, 90+2, Santos 49, Walcott 55

A watershed moment. A corner being turned. Light at the end of the tunnel. Accurate in a terse sort of way, but such truisms do not come close to telling the full story of an astonishing game at Stamford Bridge which will linger long in the Premier League annals. Arsenal recovered from going behind twice and then conceding a late equaliser to run out 5-3 winners over a bewildered Chelsea whose once-vaunted defence was in tatters by the end. Robin van Persie will grab the headlines with a clinical hat-trick, but this was a performance of great character and courage by all eleven men to put the lie to the notion that the Gunners are a one-man team.

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Arsenal find their Ox in the box

Arsenal 2 Olympiacos 1

Oxlade-Chamberlain 8, Santos 20; Fuster 27

The record book will show that Arsenal beat Olympiacos 2-1 to become the only one of the Premier League’s four representatives to win on Champions League matchday two. It will not say that they were less than convincing in the first half and had the frame of the goal to thank in the second, but that really matters not one iota. A win is a win, and goals by new boys Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and André Santos consolidated their position ahead of the forthcoming double-header with group leaders Marseille, who ran out convincing 3-0 winners over Borussia Dortmund.

Injuries to Laurent Koscielny (ankle), Gervinho (knee) and Theo Walcott (hamstring) forced Arsène Wenger into making changes from the side that defeated Bolton 3-0 on Saturday, with Alex Song stepping back into central defence. With Sunday’s North London derby in mind perhaps, Arsène Wenger also opted to rest Robin van Persie, Aaron Ramsey and Kieran Gibbs as a much-changed Arsenal side lined up as follows:

Szczęsny

Sagna – Mertesacker – Song – Santos

 Frimpong – Arteta

Rosický

Oxlade-Chamberlain – Chamakh – Arshavin

A fast start, but with familiar defensive frailties

Two starts and two goals for Oxlade-Chamberlain (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

In an open first half, it took less than eight minutes for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to establish himself as a new crowd favourite. Alex Song lofted a ball forwards which the winger, drifting in off the touchline, collected and wriggled his way into the box. From 15 yards, his left-foot shot was too precise for goalkeeper Franco Costanzo, brushing the inside of the post and giving Arsenal the perfect start. At 18 years and 44 days, he became the youngest Englishman ever to score in the Champions League.

The Greek champions were not easily discouraged though, in particular finding space down the Arsenal left behind the positionally suspect André Santos. They came perilously close to equalising when Algerian forward Rafik Djebbour took advantage of lax marking from a corner. But his first shot was blocked on the line by a fully committed Mikel Arteta, and he then poked the rebound wide.

Santos is a typically Brazilian left back – a better attacker than defender – and he showed the more positive side of his game in doubling the home side’s advantage in the 20th minute. Captain for the night Tomáš Rosický sent him galloping into an inviting expanse of space down the left to square the ball for Marouane Chamakh. José Holebas got in an immediate block but the ball broke back to Santos, who coolly beat Costanzo at his near post.

Santos capped his Champions League debut with his first Arsenal goal (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Soon after Chamakh missed the chance to put the game to bed. His first touch, taking down Andrey Arshavin‘s defence-splitting ball on his chest, was sublime. His subsequent shot, dragged yards wide of the target, was ridiculous.

Olympiacos continued to look threatening every time they ventured forward, and they eventually caught Arsenal napping with the most basic of moves. A simple short corner routine presented David Fuster with a free header near the penalty spot, and the midfielder made no mistake burying the ball past the helpless Wojciech Szczęsny. It was poor, naive defending all around.

The Greeks continued to pile on the pressure in search of an equaliser before half-time. Their passing was a little more precise than Arsenal’s, their tempo slightly more purposeful. The home side held out without conceding clear-cut chances, but much of their defending was too last-ditch for comfort, and too much of their attacking play lacked precision. Most worryingly of all, every time an attack broke down Olympiacos seemed to be able to instantly spring into a dangerous counter-attack at will as they encountered minimal resistance in midfield. In truth, aside from the scoreline they were much the better side in the opening 45 minutes.

A little luck and a lot of determination

It was a much improved Arsenal who started the second half, with many of their brightest moments continuing to come from Oxlade-Chamberlain. The youngster had a great chance to restore Arsenal’s two-goal advantage after a lovely through ball from Chamakh, but he couldn’t beat Costanzo from a tight angle. And left back Holebas, who had already been booked, was fortunate to stay on the field after appearing to shove the winger in the back as he sped clear.

However the game remained open and although Olympiacos struggled to create opportunities it was they who came closest to scoring. Right back Vasilios Torosidis was allowed to cut inside far too easily by the combination of Santos and Arshavin, and his curled effort from the corner of the area cannoned off the face of the crossbar, to Szczęsny’s relief.

Mertesacker was a calming influence at the heart of Arsenal's defence (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

With the game entering a period of stalemate, Arsenal made a pair of positive substitutions, with Aaron Ramsey and Robin van Persie replacing Oxlade-Chamberlain and Chamakh. The Welshman almost had an immediate impact, releasing Arshavin, who cut inside Olof Mellberg but directed his toe-poked effort too close to Costanzo.

With fatigue setting in on both sides and Arsenal content to tighten up more in the middle of the park, openings at either end were few and far between. Olympiacos tried everything in the last ten minutes to set up a nervy finish, but Song and Per Mertesacker remained calm and composed, mopping up everything the visitors could throw at them and leaving Szczęsny virtually untroubled for the final 20 minutes.

As both Manchester clubs proved last night, there are no easy games in European football. Victory here – their thrid win in a row – moved Arsenal one big step forwards towards qualification for the knockout stages, and continued the gradual rehabilitation of a side for whom at least a top four finish remains a very achievable goal.

Post-match reaction and analysis

With Wenger serving the second game of his touchline ban, his assistant Pat Rice addressed the press after the match:

I think in the first 20-25 minutes we were really in it well. After that for about 15-20 minutes we maybe lost our way and they came back into it. Second half we had to knuckle in, fight and get our shape right which I thought we did better in the second half.

He was full of praise for Oxlade-Chamberlain:

He can go inside, he can go outside, he’s got that injection of pace and I think what he needs now is to be consistent in his play. I am sure that is something he will be working on because he’s certainly not a stupid boy. He has good people around him and they are telling him all the right things. He is very friendly with Theo and no doubt he will give him the benefit of his experience as well.

Overall, he was pleased with his side’s defensive performance, particularly in the second half:

I thought that in general they battled very hard. I think that as we went into the second half we were tighter in the second half than we were in the last 20 minutes of the first half. People can have the ball right and left but it wasn’t really causing us too many problems. They have actually got a lot of the ball but in actual terms of what Szczęsny has had to save I don’t think there was all that many chances.

Arsenal’s recent matches have generally been a game of two halves – one good, one bad – but this was more a game of three thirds. For the first quarter of the match, Arsenal offered plenty of attacking threat while looking worryingly vulnerable at the back. For the subsequent period leading up to half-time, Olympiacos were on top as the home side struggled to string a meaningful sequence of passes together and looked all at sea defensively. The second half – while not without its worries – saw a much tighter team performance, sacrificing a little up front for a more solid defensive display.

The defensive frailties owed as much to a lack of protection from midfield as the makeshift nature of the back four. In fact, at the heart of Arsenal’s defence Mertesacker and Song formed an effective partnership, dealing comfortably with anything that came near them and offering a degree of calmness in the eye of the storm. At times it was easy to forget that the Cameroon international was only an emergency stand-in. Santos was unconvincing defensively in the first half, but better in the second. And Bacary Sagna also had his hands full in the opening period, but tightened up after the break.

The problem lay more with the midfield trio of Emmanuel Frimpong, Arteta and Rosický, who did not strike the right balance in the first half. Too often Olympiacos counter-attacked with genuine menace in the wide open spaces between midfield and defence. Only in the second half, when the central trio appeared to sit a little deeper and force the Greeks to play in front of them, did Arsenal start to look more secure – or, at least, less insecure – at the back. Each of the central men had little moments, but without ever really imposing themselves on the gane. Frimpong hustled and bustled, but still lunges in too quickly and he looked exhausted towards the end. Arteta was neat in possession and put in some good setpieces, but his influence was largely peripheral – indeed, his single biggest contribution was his magnificent goalline clearance. Rosický, too, sparked occasionally into life but was too often lost on the margins of the game.

Most of the attacking focus centred on Oxlade-Chamberlain – remarkable given his age and lack of experience – who proved that he can replicate his Carling Cup performance against Shrewsbury at a higher level. On this evidence, he will soon be pushing Walcott for more regular game time. Arshavin was invisible in the first half but much livelier in the second, presumably after receiving a rocket from Rice at half-time. As for Chamakh, his link-up play outside the box was good, but whatever confidence he has seems to evaporate the moment he crosses the 18-yard line. He had a couple of reasonable chances, but failed to put the ball in even the vague vicinity of the goal on each occasion. He desperately needs goals.

It was a winning but less than convincing performance, but the team is gradually heading in the right direction and will only continue to gel as a unit. Any kind of positive result at White Hart Lane on Sunday afternoon will send Arsenal and their fans into the international break with a sense of developing forward momentum, with the added incentive that a win will move them above their neighbours and rivals in the table. Game on.

Arsenal man of the match: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Took his goal superbly and bristled with threat all night with a lethal combination of pace, power and crossing ability. Already looks like he belongs at this level.

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