Arsenal 2 Standard Liege 0
Much in the same way that any excitement for the Alkmaar fixture was drained away in the vapours of a comprehensive North London derby victory, so a procession against Liege was difficult to exude full focus on with a make or break match against Chelsea looming large on the horizon. The draw for this group stage could hardly have been any kinder to us and though we`ve tried our best to make it exciting by giving Liege a two goal start in Belgium and deciding not to bother marking opposition players in our own penalty box in the last minute in Holland, the truth is that one eye has been firmly on the knockout stages since late August. It`s about 50% of the reason I didn`t bother booking flights for tickets for Olympiacos (the other 50% being purely fiscal), I expected and hoped for a dead rubber. After a routine victory last night, we got what we wanted. The away match at Olympiacos arrives just before our trip to Anfield so the chance to rest players will be very welcome indeed. Sitting in the Arsenal Tavern prior to the match, an affable Liege fan asked, "What are you expecting tonight?" My answer, "An Arsenal victory" was met with a terse nod of agreement, "Perhaps," he answered ominously, his mouth already enveloped over the rim of his pint in resignation.
Liege of course were without arguably three of their best players in Defour, de Camagio and Jovanovic. (Yet they still kept their defeat more respectable than top four Tottenham, they of the impenetrable bench, who apparently think their defeat didn`t count because Lennon, Modric and Defoe were missing). Arsene gave Carlos Vela a run at the arrowhead of the front three, leaving Eduardo kicking his heels on the bench after a poor display on Wearside, whilst Eboue continued at right back- as has been customary in the Champions League this season. The Gunners began the game at a canter and could have opened the scoring inside five minutes, Fabregas and Nasri showed some neat interplay before Nasri sent a left foot shot straight at Bolat in the Liege goal. After the imperious Alex Song had a shot which was deflected wide, Arsenal produced one of those opportunities that beggar`s belief. Fabregas arced in a right wing corner; Arshavin saw his header blocked by Bolat, Vela prodded the rebound onto the post; the ball fell to Gallas, whose close range attempt was blocked on the line, the ball then ricocheted out to Vermaelen whose whizzing strike was then headed off the line by Goreux. A breathless scramble had somehow come to nothing. Standard threatened with their first attack, Mangala finding Mbokani on the corner of the area and Mbokani was invited to shoot by a tentative Arsenal defence and his fearsome strike cannoned off the crossbar. Another Fabregas corner, this time from the left, created the next chance for the home side. Gallas rose to meet the header, Arshavin also challenged for the ball for reasons known only to him, the distraction forced Gallas to put the ball over. The two collided badly in the air, Gallas taking a bump above the eye and Arshavin gashing his head quite badly. Temporarily, we were down to nine men.
Gallas hobbled back on whilst Arshavin had his head glued back on and despite the numerical disadvantage, Arsenal raced into a deserved lead. Vermaelen`s route one delivery down the middle saw Nasri taking up a central position, Mulemo slipped, allowing Nasri to take the ball in his stride and comfortably loop the ball into the corner of the net. A simple goal in what had been a simple game, Nasri showed great alertness to anticipate the slip. One of the things that marked an underwhelming performance from him at the weekend was his flat footedness and lack of awareness. Not so on this occasion. The Gunners were nearly two to the good two minutes later, Fabregas slipped a subtle through pass to Arshavin who took the shot first time and the ball glided barely a half inch past the upright. Another thing that had characterised our performance on Saturday had been over elaboration in the penalty area and refusing to take on the shot with the ball teed up nicely. Arshavin simply does not do convolution in the penalty area and Arsenal are a much better team for it. Liege had a good shout for a penalty turned down when a quite literally brow beaten Gallas appeared to take the onrushing Goreux down in the area. I haven`t seen a replay yet, but in real time I felt it was a penalty, Jon did not. There`s three quid riding on it, so I shall view the replay with interest!
But Arsenal were still slipping the gears, it was Arshavin`s turn to find Fabregas with a cute through ball and Fabregas slipped the ball agonisingly wide of the upright. In the dying embers of first half injury time, the home side had the two goal advantage their dominance deserved. Denilson cued the ball up thirty yards from goal with no Liege player in sight and let rip with a dipping, swerving strike, the trajectory deceiving Bolat before the ball nestled in the roof of the net. Two goals to the good and with Arsenal only needing to avoid defeat to ensure qualification, any lingering, sub conscious air of tension evaporated into a drizzly North London evening. Attentions were instead fully focussed on Sunday, Silvestre replaced the battle worn Gallas at half time. It is of the utmost importance that he is fit for Sunday. The second half was played very much at a snail`s pace with the Chelsea match etched into the minds of players and supporters alike. Fabregas hit a rising shot well over the bar at the beginning of the half, but horrendous defending would again rear its head in the Arsenal ranks. Liege were awarded a free kick as Mbokani fouled Silvestre (work that one out?), Sarr clipped his delivery to the front post where three Liege players had moved away from their markers unchallenged. Fortunately, Witsel slipped four yards from goal and barely connected with the set piece, but Arsenal`s weakness from set pieces was again exposed. You should not see defending of this comedic sort from any side playing at this level of competition, let alone a team with designs on winning it. As I have said before, defending is a mentality as much as it is to do with formation and tactics. If Arsenal show even a glimpse of this devil may care rearguard action on Sunday, prepare for a sound beating. That the team believes they can switch off defensively when they are winning and then magically realign their concentration when they are not is the single biggest weakness I can see in this Arsenal side.
The match petered out into something far removed from spectacle, Walcott entered the fray and shot just wide from the right, whilst Mohammed Sarr`s left foot effort cracked a post. Alex Song nearly punctuated an impeccable performance with a sumptuous goal, slyly turning two Liege defenders with a Cruyff turn before curling his shot just wide. Medhi Gonzalez tried to have a nibble at Fabregas in the centre circle, Cesc`s retort was a crunching, yet fair retribution challenge. Clearly there was a combustible situation afoot and Gonzalez stupidly head butted the Arsenal captain to receive his marching orders. There was one big dampener on the night when Kieran Gibbs was subject to a hefty challenge from Mangala, which ironically given his close call last week, has now broken Kieran Gibbs` metatarsal. This time on the left foot to compliment the heavy bruising he suffered on his right in Vilnius last week. Chelsea do not generally play with a discernable right winger- all of their width comes from the left, nevertheless, it was a big blow to lose yet another valuable player to long term ailment. The season looks like it is morphing into the ghost of Christmas` past with injuries burgling us of our potential. The final whistle was greeted with a moderate cheer, a job professionally done. The biggest cheer of the night came when the big screen confirmed Liverpool`s exit. My apathy towards that whole situation can be best explained by the fact that I initially thought the cheer was greeting Olympiacos` draw with Alkmaar confirming us as Group winners! The game was not so much a reaction to the Sunderland defeat as a warm up for the Chelsea match, our status as Group winners with a game to spare takes some mental and physical pressure off the players for the trip to Greece. Europe can sit comfortably on the backburner until February- when our league run in will be looking quite good.LD.
Team: 1.ALMUNIA, 27.EBOUE, 10.GALLAS (18.Silvestre H/T). 5.VERMAELEN, 28.GIBBS, 17.SONG, 15.DENILSON (7.Rosicky `66), 4.FABREGAS©, 8.NASRI (14.Walcott `71), 23.ARSHAVIN, 12.VELA. Unused: 3.Sagna, 9.Eduardo, 16.Ramsey, 24.Mannone.