Standard Liege 2 Arsenal 3
Had this tie fallen on any other day in the Champions League calendar I would have been there, alas, the UEFA demi-Gods were not smiling on me and I had to settle for a brief in front of my Mum`s television- work commitments getting the better of me. The text I received upon leaving work from my party that did travel to Liege proudly announcing that they`d spent their afternoon, shall we say, sampling the local delicacies, hardly smoothed my annoyance. Five minutes into this game and I was actually beginning to mutter words of mercy that I had not been able to attend. (For "utter words of mercy" read "scream words of invective").
With the fallout from Eastlands raging on, it was good to simply see Arsenal taking to a football pitch again. Unfortunately they did so in a cocksure and dismissive manner, wantonly underestimating their opponents. The sloppiness set in instantly, Clichy allowed Dalmat to whip in a low cross, confident that no Liege players were a clear and present danger in the box. Song did not get a shout from Mannone and put the ball out for a corner. Jovanovic`s corner was partially cleared with a looping header from Vermaelen, Eduardo senselessly attempted a back heel flick on the edge of his own area, the ball duly fell to Mangala who was given license to hit a low shot past Mannone, with nobody seeing fit to press the opposition player. Eight players were within twenty yards of Arsenal`s goal and not one of them mounted a challenge. As for Eduardo`s aberration, are you going to try and convince me he would have tried that one in the first minute at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge? It stunk of arrogance and got the reward it deserved. Yet amazingly, the Gunners maintained their aloofness further, Eboue lost concentration when trying to control a simple pass from Song, Jovanovic snapped hungrily at him, dispossessing him and running at the naked Arsenal penalty area. Gallas took the swipe of a rookie playing his first ever game rather than a seasoned and decorated international and Liege had a penalty. Jovanovic picked himself up and coolly slotted to Mannone`s right with four minutes and four seconds on the clock. It was another case of Arsenal trying to reincarnate themselves as Peter Pan; the team that just refuses to grow up.
Arsenal went from arrogance and complacency to wretched nerves, misplacing simple passes whilst Liege perhaps worked themselves into overdrive. Without the directness of van Persie, Arshavin, Walcott and Nasri, Arsenal looked meandering and lost. That Tomas Rosicky looked Arsenal`s lad most likely, trying to play probing passes and pick up positions off enemy radar speaks volumes of how much direct play was needed. Largely what we got was aimless and impotent. Bendtner did pick up a good position on the left, picked out by Fabregas, but drilled his low cross along the six yard box beyond Rosicky and Eduardo. However, Liege had dropped off too much- particularly with Arsenal vulnerable on the counter attack with their spongy soft centre. Is it any coincidence that Arsenal`s defending was markedly improved this season (the two centre backs ranking 1st and 2nd in Arsenal`s Player of the Month for August) right up until the time that Denilson hobbled off at Eastlands? His cover for the back four is difficult to appreciate until he is not there. Even then most choose to ignore it. Song doesn`t look half the player without his able deputy hovering up loose balls and picking up errant opposition runners. The 4-3-3 system also requires the wider players in the midfield three to track back- if you`re going to play Abou Diaby on the left hand side of that triumvirate, the opposition will always see some joy and I find it hard to dismiss the coincidence of Clichy`s poor form with Diaby`s inclusion in the side and the outright lack of protection that affords him. However, despite their poor performance, Arsenal produced a lifeline with their first opportunity of note. Just when you`re cursing the fact that Abou Diaby`s parents didn`t just decide on an early night 25 years ago, he manages to motor past three Liege players in the heart of midfield, Bendtner made an intelligent run into the channel which Diaby picked out and Bendtner angled the ball through the legs of Bolat. Game back on and such is life for Abou Diaby, unimaginably, woefully terrible for pretty much 89 minutes and 59 seconds, but turns the game with his only contribution worth remembering. It makes him all the more frustrating as a player when you realise he`s not a bad player when he manages to dislodge his head from his backside.
Arsenal had the impetus back, but nearly surrendered it with causal disdain once again seconds into the second half. Song`s wayward back pass was ceased on Mbokani, fortunately Clichy`s brain was still wired and he rushed to make an important block. Arsenal went straight up the other end and nearly atoned instantly when Tomas Rosicky`s brilliantly flighted ball found Bendtner, he took the ball in his stride only to be denied with a superbly executed last ditch tackle from Mangala. Liege were looking increasingly spent as they hung further and further backwards, though their prescience on the counter attack was elucidated but once, Dalmat raced beyond Diaby and Clichy- who had idiotically gone for the same ball- but Dalmat`s low cross was chopped over his own bar by Eboue. It seemed a matter of time though before a worn down Liege would concede and so they did on 79 minutes, albeit in very controversial circumstances. For once, Fabregas` free kick did not sail out of play or into the arms of the keeper, Eduardo may or may not have flicked on his left wing delivery, which may or may not have meant Song was offside on the back post. However, there can be no disputing that Song kept the ball in play with his arm before tucking the ball back for Vermaelen to prod home from about six centimetres. How the referee or his assistant did not see the erroneous hand is beyond me, it should have stuck out at them like an errant locomotive such were their positions. For now, I`ll take the fortune. Nobody seemed too bothered about Gareth Barry`s handball on Saturday and I do recall Henry being unfairly denied a late equaliser in Moscow a few years back for a handball that never was. Scant comfort for Liege though.
Arsenal were firmly on the front foot and Liege looked out for the count. Another Fabregas corner saw Vermaelen`s improvised back heel flick hacked off the line by Sarr. But Arsenal obviously had found their groove from set pieces, another last ditch tackle on Eduardo resulted in a corner. Fabregas swung in another precise delivery and Eduardo was on hand to guide the ball into the vacant net with his knee. Had that ball arrived at any other player, you imagine a foot or shin would have wildly been swung at the ball. But Eduardo has great sangfroid in the area and knew to just let the ball hit him. I am sure if Eduardo weren`t such an individual of class he might have dedicated that goal to Gordon Smith. Arsenal endured one last scare when Clichy had to block Dalmat in injury time, but the Gunners held out for victory. The ability to fight back from 2-0 down away from home without a cavalcade of our attacking players is no mean feat and one not to be dismissed. However, it papers over some very worrying cracks. Better opposition than Liege will stand in our way should we have designs on winning the competition and such kamikaze defending will see heavy defeat against the cream of the Continent. Once again, individual errors were strewn across the night and I worry deeply about the mentality of this team as such errors have been commonplace for quite some time. Is it a question of motivation or intelligence? Whatever the question, the answer does not make for pleasant reading. The lack of cover for the full backs is of genuine concern and perhaps a fallibility of the 4-3-3; the likes of Diaby and Arshavin when he regains fitness will have to work harder to protect their defence. The lack of cover becomes even more stark when Denilson is absent, his ability to plug gaps unmatched by any other player in Arsenal`s current squadron. This is not a question of the back four so much as the team defending better as a unit. However, that has been a question mark over Arsenal for some four or five years now. For now we`ll take the points, but it appears Wenger still does not have the balance of this team right.LD.
Team: 24.MANNONE, 27.EBOUE (3.Sagna '79), 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN, 22.CLICHY, 4.FABREGAS(c), 17.SONG, 2.DIABY, 7.ROSICKY (16.Ramsey '69), 52.BENDTNER, 9.EDUARDO (19.Wilshere '83). Unused: 18.Silvestre, 28.Gibbs, 53.Szczesny, 54.Watt.