Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Arsenal qualify for last 16

After a tough encounter with the French champions, Arsenal have just about done enough to seal their slot in the last 16 of the Champions League.

The game was by no means a classic, but Arsenal did the job they were sent out to do, and the three points are all that mattered to be honest. It's easy to get bogged down into the analysis of how the team played, but at the end of the day we scored 2 and kept a clean sheet, and are in a position that every club in England (bar Manchester United) would like to be in.

After the game, Arsene was quick to focus on the lacklustre opening, but maintained that he still kept faith that the squad could come through the challenge, saying: “It was a question of being patient and waiting for our chances, which we did.”

Wenger also picked out Jack Wilshere as the key performer in the match. The Frenchman said "He's getting strong physically. Tonight he got in the box - he's the complete midfielder you know, I believe he can defend well, attack well and these kinds of matches will give him confidence."

We started the game with the same lack of urgency as Saturday, but since Montpellier are clearly not at the level that they reached last season, having had their squad ravaged by injury and suspension, we were never truly met with the threat of going behind. Dare I say it, but on the whole the defence looked quite solid, and it is by no means down to the return of Szczesny who brings about an air of calmness to the side that we were lacking.

Wilshere and Chamberlain were featuring together for the first time at Arsenal, but both players were guilty of giving the ball away cheaply, as we struggled to get a proper foothold in the game. The only real chance of the first half came from a Koscielny header which cannoned off the crossbar.

With the start of the second half though, Arsenal looked a lot more impressive. The passing was more intent and fluid, and the midfield players like Wilshere and Cazorla started to dominate proceedings. The first goal came in the 50th minute, where some neat link up play between Podolski and Vermaelen led to a ball into the box. Giroud, who was eager to make an impression against his former side, leapt up and cushioned down a header to Wilshere, who finished tidily in the six yard box. It was his first goal in 2 years, and will hopefully be the first of many this season as he starts to get further down the road of recovery.

The whole side seemed to relax into the game, and Chamberlain particularly had more confidence now, and was running his defender ragged at times. It was a Chamberlain run which led to the second goal. He robbed the defender on the half way line before driving forward to the edge of the area, there Giroud slipped in a perfectly weighted ball into the path of the on-rushing Podolski, and the German didn't disappoint, slamming the ball past the 'keeper and virtually finishing the match as a contest. 

It was a great goal, and it was good to see Giroud contribute to the team effort with 2 assists, despite not getting on the scoresheet. The Frenchman managed 9 assists with Montpellier last year as they claimed the French title, and it is clear to see that his teamwork is clearly a large part of his game. Arsene was also quick to praise the £13million signging: “Sometimes he wants to come deep, but he is best as a target man. You know he will fight for the team. His performance is many times very decisive. He works very hard for the team and has a good team spirit.”

After the second goal, the concentration seemed to turn towards keeping a clean sheet, our first since QPR at home, and the defence duly obliged with little fuss. Cazorla and Arteta helped keep the ball very well in the last 15 minutes, whilst Gervinho and Coquelin entered the fray to get some game time. Wilshere and Podolski were able to complete their first 90 minutes each of the season which is good as they are continually getting closer to being 100% fit.

With Schalke winning their game, it meant that both sides are though to the next round. Arsenal do still have a chance to top the group, but with it now being out of our hands we might not travel to Olympiakos with our strongest side. Personally I don't think that there is too much difference between finishing in either position anymore. Last season we finished top and were drawn against AC Milan, this year we could finish top and be drawn against Real Madrid. Whilst we could finish second and face Malaga.

On the matter Arsene said: "We will try to finish top of the group. You always feel a bit guilty if you don't do it. In this competition you just want to get to the next round and win the game. That's all you can do. Now of course we go into a cup competition which is a little bit different. We have some time and it's important we go into March with our best team available."

Whilst he does mention the desire to win the group, the fact that he is already looking towards March highlights that we may see some rotation in the side that travels to Greece. Hopefully by then we'll have some more players back too.

Overall, tonight was a case of getting the job done, which we did well. It was great to see Jack on the score-sheet and another fantastic Podolski goal. The victory and clean sheet is something we can build on as we start to look towards Saturday and the difficult trip to Villa Park. There we have the possibility of earning a third victory in a row which is something we are yet to do this season.

But we have a while to wait until then, lets be happy for qualification, and thankful that we don't have to keep getting a new manager every 15 minutes.

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