Perhaps it wasn’t a game of great significance, but that doesn’t make the win any less satisfying for Arsenal. Having been roundly outplayed in a 2-0 defeat in Borussia Dortmund in September, here was an emphatic response: a 2-0 win over the Germans to ensure Arsenal’s progress through to the Round of 16 for the 15th season in a row that may also lift some of the gloom which surrounds the club of late.
"It was a solid performance, especially defensively," Arsenal defender Per Mertesacker said after the match. "We didn’t give them too much, especially in the second half, we played absolutely solid at the back."
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The only caveat is that this wasn’t a game that actually mattered much. A draw would have guaranteed Arsenal its place in the last 16 and Borussia Dortmund its place at the top of the group; as it is, Arsenal could still nick top spot if it wins away to Galatasaray in a fortnight and Dortmund loses at home to Anderlecht. Given Dortmund’s recent poor form in the Bundesliga, in which it lies 16th, it’s probably fair to assume that, having already qualified for the second phase, Dortmund’s focus isn’t on the UEFA Champions League at the moment.
So, in a sense this was typical of Arsenal in recent years, producing an encouraging, pressure-relieving display in a game that didn’t really matter. Were they sharper here? Were there signs of Santi Cazorla regaining his form? Is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, at last seemingly free of injuries, finally fulfilling his potential? All three seemed true, while Alexis Sanchez maintained his superb goalscoring streak, but given the nature of the game it would be wrong to read too much into the performance. And, of course, as there must be with Arsenal these days there were injuries, Mikel Arteta limping off midway through the second half and Yaya Sanogo following him with what appeared to be a hamstring strain.
Arsenal’s confusion was summed up by the presence of Sanogo at center-forward, playing because of an injury to Danny Welbeck, the failure to register Olivier Giroud and Wenger’s fairly evident lack of faith in either Lukas Podolski or Joel Campbell. Within two minutes, though, Sanogo had justified his selection, holding the ball up superbly from a throw-in, laying it off to Cazorla against Nimes — way back on May 24, 2013.
Sanogo should perhaps have had another one seven minutes later, running in to Aaron Ramsey’s neat touch, only to lose control as he attempted to cut inside and waste the chance. That was the Sanogo familiar to Arsenal fans, and he remained that way for the remainder, a coltish bundle of limbs looking as though it might at some point become threatening.
It was a day for Arsenal’s less-vaunted players. Five minutes before the break, a deep cross from Sven Bender found Kevin Grosskreutz at the back of the box. He headed down for Henrykh Mkhitaryan, whose close-range shot was deflected to safety by Emiiano Martinez, Arsenal’s third-choice keeper, playing only because of injuries to Wojciech Szczesny and David Ospina. Martinez then made an excellent reflex stop form Adrian Ramos in injury-time.
By the second half, it was more reliable sources that became significant. Sanchez had already drawn one fine save low to his left from Roman Weidenfeller, and Oxlade-Chamberlain hit the bar with a volley, when the Chilean added the second. Receiving Cazorla’s pass about 25 yards out to the left of center, he cut onto his right foot and whipped a low curling shot around the goalkeeper’s dive and into the corner. It was his 13th goal since joining Arsenal in the summer, one of the few signings who has been an undoubted success.
The biggest plus of the night, though, was probably Oxlade-Chamberlain. He is still only 21 — although his early breakthrough makes him seem much older, and his injury problems seem to have dulled some of the hype that initially surrounded him. With a run of games, though, he looks increasingly confident and effective. His energy has never been in doubt, but there is an intelligence now to his running, an efficiency.
As, in fairness, Arsenal must be praised as a whole. After a run of three games without a win in all competitions, this was a significantly improved performance — albeit against a side down on its form and luck , struggling with injuries and already assured qualification. Manager Arsene Wenger agreed with his player’s assessment, particularly in light of Saturday’s disappointing defeat to rivals Manchester United.
"(We had) the focus to defend well together," Wenger said after the victory. "We had a similar game to Saturday but we focused really well not to give any chances away."
The one sour note was the loss of both Sanogo and Mikel Arteta to injuries, with the latter of particular concern as Wenger battles a growing casualty list. "It doesn’t look good, it’s a calf," the Frenchman said. "It’s difficult to take on the chin at moment, you go in to many games and need everyone available."
In the long run, does the victory matter? Perhaps not, but it never hurts to restore some pride.
Information from FOXSoccer.com’s newswire services contributed to this report.