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Arsenal, Dortmund hold deck of cards
Jack Wilshere scored his first career brace for Arsenal to lead the Gunners to a 2-0 victory over eliminated Marseille Tuesday night in the Champions League. But while the London giants sit top of Group F, they will wait until the final matchday to find out if they have booked a berth in the round of 16.
Meanwhile, Borussia Dortmund won in the other group’s match of the day, preserving their Champions League adventure, and that sets Arsenal up for what could be a nervy final group stage match in Italy against Napoli. Arsenal lead the group on 12 points with a game to play while Dortmund and Napoli trail on nine each, but there is a possibility that three teams in this so-called “group of death” can finish level on 12. And, in that case a complex series of tie-breakers come into to play.
“[Napoli] is a tough game,” said Wilshere after the match in the flash interview. “At home they're a very good team, they've got great fans. We're not through yet. We've got to regroup again.”
Wilshere needed only 28 seconds to score what stands as the second-fast goal ever scored in the Champions League when he was set free wide right by Bacary Sagna off the kickoff. Wilshere had already blown by two defenders, and with a step, he turned Lucas Mendes before firing the ball into the top of the far corner of the net, beyond a despairing Steve Mandanda.
Aaron Ramsey would almost double the lead eight minutes later, when he was picked out by Wilshere all alone, but his side-footed attempt was not crisp enough and Mandanda was able to keep it out.
Arsenal were so significantly better than this already-eliminated Marseille side that it became a cause for worry that the Gunners couldn’t turn their possession into goals -- something that Mandanda admitted outright after the match.
"If I told you we are at the same level as Arsenal, I would be lying,” said Mandanda. “Our opponents are far above us. I really think we should be on a par with such an opponent -- we were far from this tonight. Our team struggled.”
But there still were some nervous moments for Arsenal, and the nadir came when Ramsey was incorrectly judged to have been fouled in the area by Nicoloas N’Koulou, leading to a attempt from the spot from Mesut Ozil.
Ozil, who has looked jaded in his past two matches, and saw his manager tacitly admit that he had not been adequately prepared for the rigors of the Premier League the day prior, took a weak, two-step run-up, and fired a lame shot that Mandanda easily kept out. Mandanda was well off his line, and by rights, the referee should have ordered a re-take, but given that the whole call was incorrect from the start, Marseille probably saw this as justice served.
Stinging from that display, Ozil emerged in the second half as a markedly different player, and behind him, Arsenal began to turn the screw. Marseille were able to withstand about twenty minutes of pressure, but finally collapsed when Ozil, Ramsey and Wilshere all combined to break the game open for good.
Given that Dortmund face hapless Marseille in its final game means that Arsene Wenger’s men will now have to take at least a point in Italy to control their own destiny. Arsene Wenger expressed optimism, saying in an interview after the match that he was “confident” ahead of the game. They have also already dispatched Napoli once, in an easy 2-0 win on matchday two that signaled to many that the Gunners were a team to be reckoned with in Europe this season.
But Wenger did rue one thing: “We were always in control of the game and the only regret is that we couldn't score more goals,” he said. Arsenal must hop that doesn’t cost them, cruelly.
Dortmund were far from their best on Tuesday but, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan in scintillating form, they were still far too good for a Napoli side that couldn’t live with the speed of their pressing and counter-attacking. There has been a sense of weariness about Dortmund’s squad, something reflected in the number of injuries they have suffered. Against Napoli, they couldn’t start any of their first-choice back four and for that reason, they looked shaky at the back at Signal Iduna Park.
But once they got the ball to the creative trident of Kuba Blaszczykowski, Marco Reus and Mkhitaryan, chances ensued. The problem was that they missed a string of them. Dortmund were unusually tentative until they were gifted a penalty after 10 minutes as Federico Fernandez climbed on Robert Lewandowski. It was both needless and the sort of foul that is often ignored. That it was given was perhaps the sort of luck Dortmund have been missing in the past three games. Once Reus had converted, the sense of relief was obvious.
Napoli threatened infrequently. Jose Callejon got behind Erik Daum, the 21-year-old left-back and hit the post after 25 minutes, and Gonzalo Higuain almost capitalized on an uncertainly deployed offside trap, hitting his shot at the advancing Roman Weidenfeller after 59 minutes.
Bayern Munich manager Josep Guardiola has described Dortmund as the best counter-attacking side in the world, and it’s fitting that within seconds of Higuain’s chance came their second goal, Lewandowski dropping deep and sending Reus clear down the left. He squared for Blaszczykowski and the Poland international side-footed his finish between Reina’s legs.
But there is no sense of security about Dortmund these days and, while the game should have been safe at that stage, after 71 minutes they gifted Napoli a goal back. Sebastian Kehl gave away possession cheaply and, as Weidenfeller charged needlessly off his line, the substitute Lorenzo Insigne calmly dinked the ball past him and in off the post.
The pattern continued: Dortmund creates a chance on the counter, Reina saves. The Gabonese substitute Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, laid in by Lewandowski had one effort deflected narrowly wide by the keeper before, finally, with 12 minutes remaining, Aubameyang disposed Pablo Armero, played a one-two with Lewandowski and finished neatly. It was, in its way, a classic Dortmund goal: the hard press and swift counter-attack as the opposing defense struggled to get back.
Napoli can still go through but, if Dortmund wins in Marseille, they would have to beat Arsenal by three at home.
FOX Soccer's Jonathan Wilson contributed to this report.
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