Date: 30th September 2009 at 10:13am
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The Champions League group stages seem to have lost their allure somewhat. Maybe it`s a consequence of being spoiled or maybe as the wealth gap- and consequently the quality gap- becomes more marked, the Group stages feel more and more like a procession. I reflected before kick off on our first two ventures into the Champions League (the Wembley years) and how badly we struggled in the Group stages and how far the side has come since then. The class of 1998 and 1999 featured players such as Vieira, Petit, Overmars, Henry, Suker, Ljungberg- yet we still looked competition amateurs. Perhaps that`s an excellent reflection on our young players of today who have been reared to the falsetto tones of the Champions League anthem or perhaps it`s an indication of how far the quality of opponents has dropped. (After all, the teams that qualified ahead of us in 1998 and 1999 reads R.C. Lens, Dynamo Kyiv, Fiorentina and Barcelona- three of those teams would scarcely draw a sell out crowd at the Grove). The pre match pints lacked any kind of tension or anticipation; indeed I don`t think we even mentioned our opponents in passing. It seems that sense of anti climax was present in the stadium with tickets on sale less than 24 hours before the game and with banks of empty seats visible from all angles. The stadium announcer`s proclamation of a 59,000+ crowd was met with derisive laughter. Sometimes I think they shouldn`t bother announcing such skewed figures, it`s embarrassing. But such are the complacent moans and groans of Champions League fed aristocrats I suppose.

Olympiacos were on a damage limitation exercise from the outset and you cannot blame them really. Arsenal went with a slightly more attacking bent to the line up with Eboue replacing Sagna at right back for the second consecutive Champions League match. Tomas Rosicky replaced the bruised Bendtner on the right hand side of the attacking triumvirate. The Gunners did not insist on the same mistake they had made in Liege of taking their opponents too lightly and hit the ground running. Fabregas, currently the in vogue whipping boy for journalists and forum fatalists, arced a beautifully fashioned cross field ball to fellow brickbat bearer Gael Clichy (both players having been fan favourites for so long, it`s a predictable British phenomena that both are baring over the top criticism now they have been around long enough- a bit like when you`ve been with your partner just long enough for the infatuation to fade and for their table manners and sleeping habits to become a constant source of irritation), Clichy darted inside Zewlakow and showed great awareness to pull the ball back to Arshavin, whose low shot was too close to Nikopolidis. Arshavin of course is the apple of many a Gooner eye at the moment and it`s not difficult to see why. However, such is human nature that we are still in the haze of infatuation with him and his constant refusal to track back is glossed over with a dismissive, “aaah isn`t that sweet?” demeanour. Much like when you first get together with your partner and the fact that her jaw clicks when she eats and that light whistling sounds she makes in her sleep is all really quite endearing.

Arsenal were pinning the Greeks back, Arshavin played a neat ball into van Persie who teed up Fabregas and the captain`s shot thumped against the crossbar. Van Persie had the presence of mind to control the rebound and play a ball into Rosicky, who made the oft repeated Arsenal mistake of crashing his low finish straight at the goalkeeper. Arshavin would again conjure some magic in the opponent`s penalty area, picking the ball up on the right, shuffling his feet and hitting an instant low shot with no back lift, but Nikopolidis had his angles correct and ushered the ball out for safety. From the resulting corner, Thomas Vermaelen headed over when he really ought to have tested Olympiacos` feather haired custodian again. It was van Persie`s turn to create havoc in the opposition penalty area- where the stage of the game was being predominantly set, twisting Olof Mellberg one way and then the other, but yet again his finish meant Nikopolidis barely had to shuffle his feet to make the save. Arsenal`s approach play, with Fabregas, van Persie and Arshavin in tandem was more than the visitors, vociferously buoyed on by an enthusiastic travelling crowd, could handle. However, the reality was that the Gunners had peppered their goal with shots, yet Nikopolidis hadn`t really been required to make any breath taking stops. The finishing would have to improve.

Arsenal`s profligacy was almost punished in the harshest possible terms shortly after half time, Dudu`s corner saw Mellberg comfortably out leap Vermaelen and head towards the goal in which he registered the stadium`s first official strike three years ago, but Mannone clawed the ball away and Clichy hacked it to safety. The scare reasserted Arsenal`s focus and they almost put paid to the away side straight away. Fabregas won the ball high up the pitch and manoeuvred the ball wide to Eboue, he shifted the ball back to van Persie and yet again an Arsenal forward struck the ball straight at the keeper. Van Persie explicated his frustration with a very rash challenge on the clearing Olympiacos defender, earning himself a deserved booking in the process. Though the frustration wouldn`t prevent him pinging the ball straight at the goalkeeper yet again five minutes later, with Gallas offside from the resulting rebound. With Arsenal still chasing a game they should have been winning comfortably, Arsene sent for reinforcement, with Vela and Eduardo bowling into the fray. It was Eduardo that would show the sort of sangfroid that had been missing in the penalty area on 78 minutes, Fabregas slipped a crafty pass into the left channel, which Eduardo latched onto and had the presence of mind to delay his cut back until van Persie had arrived to meet the ball in the six yard area, had Eduardo played the pass a second earlier, the onrushing Dutch striker would have had to check his body position and might well have needed a touch before striking, by delaying, Eduardo`s pass met van Persie`s stride perfectly and he swept the ball into an open net for his third goal in his last four games.

Arsenal suddenly relaxed again and were allowed to carve out a second goal of artistic beauty. Ramsey controlled the ball calmly on the edge of the area and elucidated his growing maturity by waiting and slipping a measured pass to Fabregas on the right hand side, his low sweeping cross saw Arshavin pirouette and flick the ball into the net with the back of his instep. For most of the evening, Arsenal`s attackers had made something of a trade in smashing the ball straight at the goalkeeper, so perhaps it was fitting that such an impudent flick ended up in the bottom corner. The apparently disastrously off colour Fabregas now has five assists and three goals in the five and a half games he has played this season. Poor form indeed. It was a pleasing three points and especially satisfying that Arsenal did not lose their focus with the sort of erratic, harum scarum panic button football you often see from Arsenal in these situations. A mistake they seemed to have learned from Eastlands when they treated the 60 minute mark of the game as the 89th minute. Our finishing was very disappointing and the game should have been wrapped up by half time, better, more adventurous sides won`t be bowed by one conversion in every ten shots and we must learn to be more unerring in front of goal. Other than that, a formality of a win in a formality of a group and we`ve built up a nice rhythm just in time for the international break to come and disrupt it all over again.LD.

Team: 24.MANNONE, 27.EBOUE, 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 4.FABREGAS©, 2.DIABY (12.Vela `78), 7.ROSICKY (9.Eduardo `71), 23.ARSHAVIN, 11.v.PERSIE (16.Ramsey `84). Unused: 3.Sagna, 6.Senderos, 19.Wilshere, 53.Szczesny.