FOX Soccer Exclusive
Arsenal in driver's seat after UCL win
Arsenal got their Champions League campaign off to a flying start on Wednesday night with a professional and thoughtful 2-1 away win over Olympique Marseille. Goals from Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott sealed a critical road win for the Gunners in what has rightly been called the Champions League’s “group of death.” The win will give the Londoners breathing space: if they go on to win all their home fixtures, by no means a certainty, they should be all set.
The result will also rub salt in the wounds of fans on the other side of London, after Chelsea were stunned by the same scoreline, at home, by a resurgent FC Basel. That will certainly raise questions about Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge -- and give Arsenal fans a little more to chuckle over this week to boot.
It must be noted that for long stretches of Wednesday’s game, Marseille were the better side: they presented Arsenal with a compact defense that rarely allowed sight of Steve Mandanda’s goal and used Lucas Mendes and Nicholas N’Koulou to squeeze Olivier Giroud out of the game. Mesut Ozil was his usual, vibrant self but even though Theo Walcott was able to enjoy some freedom down the right flank, too often chances collapsed in the final third. And Marseille, who boast a vibrancy to match their physical nature, were frequently the more incisive, with the gleeful, tiny Mathieu Valbuena spraying the ball through the Gunners’ back line.
Several of Marseille’s best chances were self-inflicted wounds on Arsenal’s part. Per Mertesacker, who was generally solid and calming, almost gifted the French side a goal when he looped an attempted clearance over his own shoulder, over his keeper, and needed Kieran Gibbs to poke it away off the line. Dmitri Payet and Rod Fanni also capitalized on some fumbles, with Fanni having one of the egregious misses of the night when he hooked a wide-open chance wide of the far post.
But when the chances finally started to fall to Arsenal, they made no mistake. A hash of a clearance from Jeremy Morel allowed Walcott a free chance, promptly buried. It was arguably the most difficult take of the night for the winger, but handled the snap off the volley coolly, giving the excellent Mandanda no chance. Ramsey, likewise, benefited from Marseille’s shyness; they backed off him as he began a mazy run, and his shot from the edge of the area seemed to both fool and beat the keeper.
Marseille would pull one back late when Ramsey was judged, harshly, to have fouled Andre Ayew, allowing his brother Jordan to score. Fortunately for Arsenal, it was deep in stoppage time and Valbuena’s body language told you all you needed to know. While goal might prove vital down the road, for now, it is meaningless. Marseille have dropped a home game, and Arsenal are in the driver’s seat.
Arsenal and manager Arsene Wenger now must be feeling well pleased with themselves. After a dreadful opening-day Premier League loss, the side have picked themselves up, fought off Fenerbahce, won out a string of games in the league, and landed what might be the signing of the season in Ozil. They are also looking down on rivals in the table, with the vaunted Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham all trailing, at least for now.
The Gunners still have problems: their lack of depth could be assessed with a glance at Wednesday’s substitutes and the strange inclusion of youth-team member Isaac Hayden. The Gunners are missing a number of key figures, with Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Tomas Rosicky all sidelined. In fact, both Ozil and Giroud were question marks for this game and that they were able to play was a major boost.
That allowed, what resonated strongest on Wednesday was the sense of professionalism around the entire squad. This Arsenal side is beginning to look like the ones that Sir Alex Ferguson used to send out: full of belief, regardless of who is wearing the shirt. Arsenal look like a team that might be beaten up -- and they will lose games -- but they have slipped the bonds of panic that used to shackle them. Even with a rickety back line and an oft-daring keeper in Wojciech Szczesny, there is no sense of imminent collapse. That is a major change.
''We didn't have a great match but we handled well the key moments,'' Wenger told Canal Plus television. ''Marseille had an excellent first half while we were shy. We capitalized on Marseille's drop in form in the second half.''
Wenger added: "I knew it was important to get three points here if we want to have a chance. I said yesterday we needed 10 points at least so to start with three is good.
Arsenal now await a Sunday morning game against Stoke and a League Cup match against lowly West Bromwich midweek. Their next Champions League action is against Rafa Benitez’ Napoli, 2-1 winners over Borussia Dortmund to tie Arsenal atop Group F. It’s not exactly easy streets. But Arsenal, rickety Arsenal, now look like a team that can walk the mean ones.