Arsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 1
With both Manchester City and Manchester United finding Tuesday evening to be something of a proverbial pin in the balloon on Champions League progress, you felt as though Arsenal really had a chance last night to stick the middle finger up at the critics that wrote them off as a crisis club just a few short weeks ago. For instance, take this pithy piece from F365`s Pete Gill following the draw in Dortmund and read smugly.
In retrospect, that acid tongued, pathos laced prose tastes sweet and sugary. It belongs in the Louvre. As did last night`s performance. I know Arsenal are capable of free flowing, those games where everything clicks, the sun always shines and the stars twinkle. The last three seasons however, we`ve been equally capable of the sort of suicidal brain farting that has driven men to coronary conditions. Games like last night always give me the greatest satisfaction. Dortmund are a class team on a run of form similar to our own.
Coach Jurgen Klopp said in his Tuesday press conference that Borussia wouldn`t "make an obsession" of van Persie. In a sense, he was right. He probably knew what the rest of us know; trying to stop van Persie in the final third is like trying to stop Bono from being a twat. Try as you might, it can`t be done. So Borussia worked- and succeeded for a time- on cutting off his supply. Ramsey and Walcott are two of the prime conduits for van Persie and Dortmund ensured both were marked very tightly. Their pressing was relentless anyway, but Ramsey and Walcott in particular were hounded and given extra attention. As a result, Arsenal struggled to establish any rhythm as Borussia- needing a win to keep realistic hopes of progression alive- started on the front foot.
In the opening minute, Gotze`s through ball looked to have put Lewandowski through on goal, but his compatriot Szczesny was out smartly to smother. Then Kagawa`s shot from range called the Gunners keeper into action again. Arsenal`s only real opportunity of note in the half came when Ramsey found Walcott in space for the only time in the half, Theo`s low cross looked to be creeping its way to an unmarked van Persie on the back post, but Weidenfeller was sharp enough to cut out the cross. Lewandowski chanced his arm from long range, but the half was low on goalscoring chances. Dortmund passed the ball better and were better at regaining possession. But Arsenal`s solidity ensured their goal remained in tact.
My feeling was that the longer the game went on without Arsenal conceding, the more confident I would feel of victory. Borussia`s situation called on them to win, which in turn meant they would be likely to try and advance more as the game went on. The Arsenal of three months ago wouldn`t have held them off, I`m sure. But when you`re on form, little things tend to go for you and Dortmund`s ambitions were blunted by the loss to injury of Mario Gotze and Sven Bender- who underwent surgery last night on a fractured jaw.
The away side had been better in the first half, but the Gunners had held firm enough to keep a foothold on the game. Early in the second half, that grip did look briefly tenuous. Piszczek whipped in a dangerous low cross across Arsenal`s six yard area, which Mertesacker had to be alert to sweep away. On just 47 minutes, Dortmund threatened to strike again. Kagawa powered down Arsenal`s right hand side and called Szczesny into action with a low shot. But just as Arsenal`s grip began to slip, they delivered a sucker punch.
Ramsey turned the ball to Alex Song on the left hand side. He motored past Grosskreutz, before showing a beguiling shift of feet to shuffle between the bamboozled Schmelzer and Kruse, before clipping an inch perfect cross to the back post where van Persie craned his neck muscles and headed down and into the net. Van Persie`s name adorned the score sheet once more, but it was the name of Alex Song that rang around the stadium.
His was a quite superb performance even without the assist. He appears to have developed such an effective way of tackling that is incredibly effective. Rather than lunging into challenges, he first sticks his body into the player, wedging himself between ball and opponent, before fishing the ball out with his leg. It`s so effective because a player that performs his role is likely to commit a lot of fouls. This style of tackling ensures that, even if Song gets the challenge wrong, he fouls the opponent and doesn`t let him get away. But by staying on his feet, he doesn`t concede a booking. It`s perfect in every respect; it`s guaranteed to stop the opposition without big punitive penalties in the event of the worst case scenario. It also means if he wins the ball, he is usually able to keep control of it and retain possession.
Arsenal ought to have moved into a two goal lead around the hour mark. Ramsey played a precise through ball to Gervinho. The Ivorian deceptively and successfully shimmied his way past Weidenfeller, but Mats Hummel sprinted back to intercept with a saving tackle. Plenty will be said about Gervinho`s finishing of late. But I think he was unlucky with this and a one on one he missed against Norwich, where he also looked to have successfully rounded the keeper. So long as he keeps finding those positions, I wouldn`t worry too much at this stage.
But with six minutes remaining, the Gunners wrapped up an assured victory with a familiarly unfamiliar goal. Mikel Arteta whipped in a near post corner; Thomas Vermaelen did his best Steve Bould impression with a dashing run to the front post and flick on to an unmarked Robin "Smudger" van Persie to sweep home from close range on the back post. It`s not a coincidence that van Persie keeps finding these easy tap ins. The copybook was blotted ever so slightly with the last kick of the match. Alex Song over elaborated next to his own corner flag and was robbed of possession by Piszczek, he raced into the area before cutting the ball back for Kagawa to sweep past Szczesny. Vermaelen kicked wildly at the post in frustration. Clean sheets appear to be a matter of professional pride for Arsenal`s defence again.
In the end, it was a controlled performance that showed the growing maturity of this Arsenal side. Having the likes of Benayoun to be able to sure games up is a huge bonus to us too. The headlines will once again go to van Persie and the accusations of "one man team" will again rain down. But both of his goals were scored from an accumulative distance of about eight yards. There`s an awful lot of pitch behind him before he gets those chances. For now, whilst Arsenal swim proudly into the next round as Group winners, our compatriots flounder in the pond. The Gunners can afford to take a night off in Greece, with the added bonus of being able to contemplate a stronger side to face City in the Carling Cup.LD.
13.SZCZESNY, 6.KOSCIELNY (20.Djourou `85), 4.MERTESACKER, 5.VERMAELEN, 11.A.SANTOS, 17.SONG, 8.ARTETA, 16.RAMSEY, 14.WALCOTT (2.Diaby `83), 27.GERVINHO (30.Benayoun `74), 10.v.PERSIE ©. Unused: 21.Fabianski, 23.Arshavin, 26.Frimpong, 29.Chamakh.
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