Doing this series every week has made me extremely conscientious of time and how quickly it passes. I mean, this already my fourth installment. When did that happen? There are 11 days until Christmas. ELEVEN. How did THAT happen?! The great Geoffrey Chaucer once said, 'time and tide wait for no man', and while you try to interpret a deep and soulful meaning from that, he's basically saying time carries on going and you can't do anything about it. Now there's a jolly thought to start your week!
After a disjointed three points against Sunderland last weekend, we travelled to Greece with one objective in mind: Progressing into the knockout stages of the Champions League. Normally we play Olympiakos in a dead rubber, where the youngsters have a chance to impress with our qualification already sealed. Not this time. Our two early defeats in the group put us in a difficult situation, but we knew the deal. Win 2-0, or by any scoreline other than 1-0 or 2-1. It was clear what we had to do, it was just a case of choosing how we went about it.
In his pre-Olympiakos press conference, Wenger was keen to echo this point, saying “There is one positive thing for us – we know exactly what we have to do. We know that we have to go for it from the start. So let’s do that and hopefully we can get through. We know what is expected of us.”
Fast starts were the theme of the day, with Mesut Ozil adding “If we score an early goal, I’m confident that we can win this game and go through. We know that we have a lot of quality up front, but our goal is to go into half-time ahead and then we will know that everything is possible.” And I don’t know about you, but if Mesut says we can do it, we can do it.
And boy did we do it. Initially, our start to the game was quite unconvincing, and we definitely didn’t live up to the fast start that the boss was talking about earlier on in the week. We were far too open in the centre of midfield, and some long range shots from the home side got their fans behind them very quickly. Not that the Greeks need much encouragement anyway.
However, Wenger tweaked a few things, more notably swapping Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell around which seemed to improve the balance of the side instantly. It was the Costa Rican who set up Flamini after 25 minutes whose shot unluckily deflected onto the bar, but it wasn’t long after that where we deservedly took the lead.
Ozil turned in midfield when he had absolutely no right to, and caressed the ball perfectly to find Aaron Ramsey loitering in the left hand channel, taking three Olympiakos defenders out of the game in the process. The Welshman then crossed with his left, Olivier Giroud made great contact with his head, and via a lucky bounce off the goalkeeper – there it was. The breakthrough. The timing could not have been better and you could feel the tension flowing through the stadium.
The second came just after half time, after Giroud won and held the ball up brilliantly in midfield. He then played it to Ozil, who lobbed a lovely pass over to Campbell who controlled expertly on his thigh, dragged it back, and played an incisive reverse pass straight into the stride of Giroud, who finished low and hard past the keeper. Ozil was Ozil, Giroud was Giroud and Campbell again impressed when given his opportunity.
2-0 was what we needed to go through, and we had it. But in the context of progression, it was a bit more complicated than that. One Olympiakos goal would see them go through instead; one more Arsenal goal would mean they had to score three times to qualify. Do we stick or twist? It's not easy.
Again, it was a bit nervy with Petr Cech having to make an acrobatic save to push a shot around his post, and there was a scrambly moment when Ideye was left free in the area but thankfully miscontrolled before we had time to clear. Down the other end, a Nacho Monreal shot was blocked by an Olympiakos hand in the box, and Arsenal had the chance to seal the deal.
Giroud was the image of composure sending the goalkeeper the wrong way, and with that, he had his first hat-trick for the club. Olympiakos knew the game was over after that, but I did enjoy Pardo trying to hurry Walcott off the pitch when he was being substituted, despite diving for the entirety of the match beforehand. After the game, Wenger was delighted with the performance of the team: "It is a fantastic achievement for us. When you look at who we’ve lost in the last three weeks, we’ve lost Coquelin, Cazorla and Alexis among other long-term injuries, not many people gave us a chance. We are a real team. In the dressing room this team is very close and you could see that again today." Too right.
After our excellent victory in Piraeus, it was up to Birmingham on Sunday where we took on Aston Villa who sat rock bottom of the table. The starting eleven was unchanged from midweek, despite rumours of Ozil having a calf issue before the game.
After dominating the ball in the early stages, a Flamini pass set Walcott free down the left, and after getting on the wrong side of Alan Hutton he was blatantly pulled down in the area. Kevin Friend took a while to make the decision, but it was the right one and Giroud buried the penalty, sending the keeper the wrong way just like he did on Wednesday. A different game this time, but I'm sure the boss appreciated the early goal! That was our handsome Frenchman's 50th Premier League goal in 113 matches, becoming the third quickest Arsenal player to reach that tally behind Thierry Henry and Ian Wright. Not bad for £12m!
After the goal we continued to dominate possession, with Ramsey, Ozil and Giroud flicking the ball around nonchalantly, making it look easy at times. Those three built a wonderful understanding with eachother early on in the 2013/14 season, and now with Ramsey back in the centre it looks like this trio could be flourishing again which is extremely encouraging.
Our second was a thing of beauty, breaking from one end of the pitch to the other in a matter of seconds. Ramsey, who was again everywhere, dispossessed Gueye on the edge of our area, and just like that we had four players sprinting forward. Ramsey to Ozil, Ozil to Walcott, Walcott back to Ozil, Ozil to Ramsey - goal. Granted, Villa defended the situation horribly, but we were quick, strong, and clinical, and in complete control at that stage.
The second half wasn't quite as comfortable as the first, with our legs tiring and Villa looking to press on as the home team. They had a few chances through Gestede and Sinclair heading off target, as well as Bacuna looping a shot just over the bar. But we weathered the brief storm, and never looked like conceding after that. In fact, we had chances to nick it on the break at the end but our final ball was poor.
After the game, the manager was happy with the performance, as well as the three points. “I’m very proud and happy of the spirit we show. There’s a strength and togetherness coming out of the team that people feel and that’s the biggest satisfaction." He also admitted that we were a bit leggy in the second half, before finishing with "It’s been a great week - Sunderland, Olympiakos and today. We’ve scored eight goals and I think it was a fantastic week. I would like to give credit to the team for their mental approach to the games.”
I thought last weeks results were kind to us, but the footballing gods are obviously paying us back with interest after all those injuries. Manchester United and Spurs both lost to Bournemouth and Newcastle respectively, Liverpool could only manage a draw at home to West Brom and Leicester play Chelsea later on tonight. (We all want Leicester to win, right?) We won't talk about City and their ridiculously jammy last minute winner. Top of the league with 16 games played, seven crocked players, progressing in Europe by the skin of our teeth - it could be a lot worse! Three wins on the trot was just what the doctor ordered.
You cannot call what’s going to happen in the Premier League this season, and it is so, so refreshing. Granted, the ‘top clubs’ have failed to find consistency throughout the opening months, but I’m not buying the 'standard of the league is decreasing', or that 'nobody wants to win the league' rubbish being spouted by various journalists and pundits of late. Everybody wants to win the league, and maybe it’s time to accept that thanks to huge TV revenues being piled into the English top division, the ‘lesser clubs’ can spend well on a higher calibre of player, thus allowing them to become more competitive, no? Anyway. That's one for another day.
In other news, the Champions League draw is happening this morning, and we can get:
- Real Madrid
- Atletico Madrid
I think we could have a great chance against any of those sides, but obviously Barcelona are the strongest, so naturally, I'm thoroughly looking forward to seeing Messi, Neymar, Suarez & Co at the Emirates come February. (We got Barcelona, because, of course we did).
Till next week.
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