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Arsenal out to prove themselves
Top of the Premier League, basking in the glory of an Arsenal goal scored by Jack Wilshere in a 4-1 victory over Norwich City on Saturday – that would bear comparison with anything fashioned by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona at their peak – so surely Arsene Wenger can feel all the pressure lifting from his shoulders now? With Borussia Dortmund heading for north London on Champions League business, it’s doubtful.
Yes, it’s true that Arsenal’s revival seemed to date from the night they went to Germany seven months ago and recovered some pride with a 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich that meant they exited the competition only on away goals, against the side who were destined to win it. But bear in mind the slaughter that had preceded the trip to Bavaria. Only 3-1 at the Emirates; that’s what the main stat said. But Wenger’s Arsenal were shown to be out of their class that night, proven unfit for any serious European purpose.
Wenger doesn’t want them to look like that on Tuesday when Borussia, losers to Bayern in a classic final at Wembley last season, come calling. Especially as the visitors’ characterful coach, Jurgen Klopp, was one of those most frequently mentioned as a possible successor to Wenger when the heat was on and the critics on the Emirates slopes were counting the years since Arsenal had landed a trophy, imploring him to spend some money on new players or – at least by implication – quit.
Although the encouraging night in Munich eased the situation slightly, more or less the same squad began this season with a home defeat by Aston Villa, and the pressure returned with a vengeance. Then Wenger did spend. He paid $65 million for Mesut Ozil and it was like the curtains opening on a beautiful spring day. Not only did Ozil burst instantly into flower – the whole team seemed to gain confidence from the signing of the elegant and wonderfully unselfish German.
Jack Wilshere and Oliver Giroud have found their scoring touch with Arsenal. (Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty)
To give Aaron Ramsey his due, the young Welsh midfielder was already showing signs of a riotous form that continued with yet another classic goal against Norwich. But to have Ozil sharing responsibility with him is clearly a joy, and on Saturday the whole midfield joined in the party. Wilshere completing his recovery from injury with the final touch of a bewilderingly intricate move that also involved that fine technician Santi Cazorla and main striker Olivier Giroud, whose use of Ozil’s service has possibly been the most dramatic of all.
Giroud didn’t score against Norwich – Ozil got the two that haven’t been mentioned so far, and they were extremely easy on the eye too – but the names on the electronic board mattered less than the flowing beauty on the pitch. This was life as the Emirates used to know it before stars like Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie started to head for the exit. As Fabregas grimaced through Barcelona’s scoreless game with Osasuna in Pamplona, and Van Persie’s goal proved inadequate to carry Manchester United to victory over Southampton at Old Trafford, Wenger savored a performance that contained everything he has ever worked for.
All he asked the players afterwards was not to get into a "comfort zone." That, we assume, will be his theme before the Dortmund game. Although they are well placed to qualify for the knockout stages after wins over Olympique Marseille and Napoli, back-to-back defeats by Klopp’s Borussia would suggest that their progress is less substantial than it has been pretty thus far.
While Dortmund head for London, Chelsea will be heading out – to Germany, to face Schalke, buoyed like Arsenal by a 4-1 win at home in the Premier League. Chelsea’s success was against promoted Cardiff, who left Stamford Bridge bitterly and justly complaining about the first goal they conceded.
They were leading through a goal for which David Luiz was responsible – the Brazilian’s crazy dummy let Jordon Mutch run through and score – when Cardiff goalkeeper David Marshall tried to bounce the ball only to have it flicked away from him by Samuel Eto’o, after which Eden Hazard put it in the net.
That’s a free-kick to Cardiff under the laws, for the goalkeeper is deemed to have the ball under his control if he bounces it, but referee Anthony Taylor explained to a seething Cardiff coach, Malky Mackay, afterwards that he and his assistants thought Marshall had just dropped the ball.
You might think it a bad error – and Taylor is likely to be asked to sit at least one game out by the League as a punishment. But you might also wonder why the ref can’t get a bit of video assistance in such situations. Blame the conservatism of FIFA. And don’t have too much sympathy for the English Premier League, whose much-trumpeted introduction of goal-line technology at the start of the season addressed something that hardly ever needs attention. Referees need proper help. But don’t ask me when it will happen.
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