Olympiacos 1 Arsenal 0
With qualification as Group winners assured and Arsene naming ten teenagers in his squad for the trip to Athens, a defeat might well have been considered a likely outcome, even though Olympiacos were missing a good few players of their own. So it was curiosity, rather than nerves and tension that I sat down to watch this dead rubber encounter. I had elected not to travel to Greece when the fixture dates were finalised, I fully expected that we would have already won the group by this stage and Athens is a beautiful city, but a bit rich for my blood this year so close to Christmas. (Damn you Civil Service pay cuts). Whilst I always feel virtually completely disconnected from the game on the few occasions I am forced to watch on television, but I have to confess that watching the game in my bedroom was a novelty that was not lost on me!
A very young side showed absolutely no reticence in establishing an early passing rhythm, getting onto the ball early on and pinning Olympiacos back with concise passing. The Greeks looked like a side caught between two stalls, often needing only a point in a game such as this causes hesitance and Arsenal appeared to seize on that from the beginning, though the hosts kept a deep defensive line making them difficult to penetrate. Arsenal might have opened the scoring after ten minutes, Jack Wilshere picked up Merida`s pass and shuffled the ball wide to Walcott and he could not quite wrap his foot around his snapshot, hitting it straight at Nikopolidis. However, as with their senior counterparts, Arsenal looked vulnerable to the counter attack and Olympiacos nearly exposed the lack of defensive cover with their first meaningful attack of the game. Oscar Gonzalez`s cross from the right, with Cruise out of position, found Mitroglou in space, but the Cypriot panicked and skied his first time effort when he had time to take a touch and set himself. A pattern was set as Arsenal continued to enjoy possession without too much penetration, partly because Vela is still learning the central striker role and how to pull defenders out of position when he finds himself too crowded out to make a run for himself. Plus, his embarrassing reliance on his left foot makes him extremely easy to defend against, he`s going to have to learn to use his right or he`ll only ever be half the player he could be. Quite literally. The home side again lured Arsenal into their web before weaving a troublesome counter attack, this time it was Mitroglou easing past Kerrea Gilbert on the left hand side before clipping a cross to the back post which Luciano Galletti volleyed narrowly wide.
The Gunners had a willing runner up front in Theo Walcott, but poor control let him down twice in the space of minutes. Firstly when the imperious Ramsey clipped a wonderfully flighted ball over the top of the Olympiacos defence to Walcott, who had timed his run to perfection, but could not bring the ball under his spell. A few minutes later it was Merida who weaved a wonderful pass between Galtisios and Mellberg for Walcott in the left channel, but again his legs were going faster than his brain as he left the ball behind him with the home defence briefly parted. Olympiacos visibly relaxed as news filtered through that AZ had taken the lead against Standard Liege and finished the half the stronger, another Galtisios cross from the right was volleyed over by the imposing Raul Bravo. But at half time, one had to be very pleased. The majority of Arsenal`s starting line up were more accustomed to midweek at Underhill rather than Athens and they had stood toe to toe with their hosts. Though perhaps both full backs lacked the guile to know when to support the attack and when to track back, you couldn`t say the side looked anomalous in their surroundings.
But inexperience is bound to tell in a team where seven players are under the age of 21 and so the visitors were cruelly punished just 90 seconds into the second half. Kyle Bartley showed the rashness of youth as he charged into the centre circle for a stiff challenge on Gonzalez, leaving Leonardo to pick up the loose ball. Gilbert needed to either career in and take the ball (or the man!) or else drop back into position. He hesitated and as a result did neither, leaving Leonardo to make a beeline for goal, slipping the ball through the legs of the onrushing Fabianski. A tough break, particularly on a goalkeeper who showed great maturity and took responsibility in a young defence, his decision making of when to come out of his area and when to come for the catch had been spot on all night- alleviating the pressure from less experienced shoulders. His handling was faultless all evening and he deserved a clean sheet for his efforts. It was now an entirely different test for this young side, now they had to respond to being a goal down away from home. Their response was very pleasing indeed. Although it was obvious the physical level of the likes of Wilshere, Cruise and Bartley had dropped, the Gunners still created chances. What was especially pleasing was that the players more accustomed to first team football really took some responsibility in their areas of the pitch. Whilst Alex Song had played like a wounded bird in Manchester, he hassled and retained possession and used the ball intelligently, Silvestre marshalled the infant defence around him and Aaron Ramsey looked like a man who didn`t want to prove he simply belonged on this stage. He looked like a man who wanted to prove he could dominate on this stage and he was the pivot of all that was good about Arsenal, aided by a willing link man between attack and midfield in Merida, Ramsey wanted the ball and looked to make things happen.
It was Ramsey who burst down the left two minutes after Arsenal had gone behind, despite the attentions of three Olympiacos defenders snapping at his heels, he had the gumption to look up and spot the onrushing Carlos Vela and play him in with acres of space in the area, but his right foot shot was weak and lacked conviction, aimed straight at Nikopolidis` legs. Once more it was Ramsey dictating play in the centre circle, picking the ball up from Silvestre before hitting a wonderfully arced through ball with the outside of his right foot which found Walcott in his stride, but Raul Bravo blocked his shot. With Ramsey picking passes weighted as well as this, it was a genuine head scratcher as to why Walcott was allowed to send all of our set pieces into orbit all night, with Ramsey undeployed. From the resulting corner, Ramsey found space but was always leaning backwards as his header drifted into Nikopolidis` arms. But Arsenal`s best chance to equalise arrived when Merida found space between Olympiacos` midfield and defence, he slipped a delightful through ball to Vela, he prodded a strike over the bar with the outside of his left foot. It was the finish of a young man low on confidence. Again, I must question Arsene`s assertion that he would be buying a striker in January. The effect it appears to have had on Messrs Vela and Eduardo is debatable, but it certainly hasn`t helped. It`s notable that Wenger has backtracked on that statement somewhat in the last week.
Olympiacos appeared happy to hold what they had, but did threaten to take advantage of tired legs and minds in Arsenal`s defence when Gonzalez slipped a through ball in behind a soporific Gilbert, Leonardo again made a beeline for goal, but Fabianski was out decisively again to smother his effort. Arsenal were looking good for an equaliser and probably deserved one for their efforts. The closest the side came in the whole match arrived in injury time. Merida`s corner found its way to Ramsey in the six yard box, he flicked out a leg and directed it towards goal, before Leonardo genuflected his action, instinctively flicking out a thigh to clear it off the line. Ramsey being assisted by Merida would have been a very fitting way to forge a deserved equaliser but it was not to be. Overall, we can be very satisfied with our performance with so many young players in the starting line up away from home. In truth, the game looked a little soon for the likes of Bartley and Cruise whilst Gilbert probably doesn`t have the concentration levels to succeed at Arsenal. Wilshere looks as though a loan spell would do him the world of good in order that he can feel his way around a competitive 90 minute game a lot better. The players more on the fringes of the first team, such as Fabianski, Ramsey and Merida made a good case for more prominent inclusion, whilst Silvestre did actually look a man of experience, as opposed to the impression of a teenager with bowel problems he had perfected at City last week. The young players will have learned a great deal from their experience and will hopefully have gleaned some confidence from their display which was a credit to them.LD.
Team: 21.FABIANSKI, 42.GILBERT, 34.BARTLEY, 18.SILVESTRE©, 36.CRUISE, 17.SONG, 16.RAMSEY, 32,MERIDA, 14.WALCOTT, 19.WILSHERE (51.Sunu `75), 12.VELA. Unused: 24.Mannone, 35.Coquelin, 37.Eastmond, 44.Ayling, 48.Randall.