Villainous Arsenal progress to group stage in style
Arsenal are through to the group stage of the Champions League. That’s all that should matter. When you are thrown into an open draw, knowing that you could be knocked out of the Champions League before it even starts, all you care about is progression. But when you draw another team from Britain, and the media gets a hold of the story, it grows into something bigger. So let’s put this back in perspective. Arsenal won their Champions League qualifier. That’s all that happened on Wednesday, and that’s all that matters.
Naturally, that’s not how the media are going to spin this. We’re going to be vilified and slandered for the next few days. Eduardo was awarded a dubious penalty and so the media now must take it upon themselves to invalidate the quality of our performance and reduce our qualification down to luck and poor sportsmanship. There are even stories suggesting that Eduardo should be banned for the next two Champions League fixtures. Obviously this is all a load of bollocks but you can’t expect sky sports to pass on an opportunity to take Arsenal down a peg. So take a deep breath, mutter some expletives, and then remind yourself that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks because anyone that doesn’t support Arsenal is a worthless pile of crap anyway. There…Feel better?
As for the game, (yes there was a game) it really wasn’t much of a contest. As suspected, Arsene continued his faith in the 4-3-3 formation with Diaby, Eduardo and Bendtner across the top, in front of Denilson, Song and Eboue. The first choice back four lined up in front of Almunia. Celtic chose a more attack minded 4-4-2 than what we saw in Glasgow and both Fortune and MacDonald started up front.
It was interesting watching this group of players confidently control the game. Our midfield consisted of three players who spent most of last season being told they weren’t good enough for Arsenal. It’s a measure of how much difference a few months can make, and of Arsene’s faith in his squad. I thought Eboue was magnificent in this match. He showed his usual brand of elusiveness, but brought a work ethic to his game that he hasn’t always demonstrated. I can’t stress enough my belief that he has a big part to play in our season and it was an excellent decision to avoid the temptation to sell him this summer.
The match started with ragged play but it wasn’t long before we took control. Although Celtic had more possession than they did in the first leg, they rarely looked dangerous. Arsenal, on the other hand, looked likely to score on several occasions with Eboue and Eduardo causing the most trouble. When the goal finally came it wasn’t unexpected, but the manner in which it occurred produced the major talking point of the night.
Eduardo is a top quality player and a well respected figure at Arsenal. That doesn’t mean he’s a saint and it doesn’t mean that he should be held to a different standard than any other striker. After some remarkable buildup play delivered the ball to Eduardo in the box, he pushed the ball towards the byline forcing Boruc to charge. Once Eduardo tapped the ball past the ‘keeper it looked for all the world as if contact was inevitable. Bracing for the contact, the striker allowed himself to fall to the ground. Gonzales, one of Uefa’s top referees, assumed that Boruc has caused Eduardo’s fall and pointed to the penalty spot. Upon seeing the replay it was clear, Boruc had not made contact with Eduardo. Regardless, the Crozillian stepped to the spot and coolly slotted home the penalty, sending the ‘keeper the wrong way. It was a harsh on Celtic, but no less than Arsenal’s play deserved.
Celtic were understandably furious with the referee and the media have taken up their cause, but it was an incident that would have happened with any striker in the world. When the keeper charges, and the stiker pushes the ball past him, you have all the ingredients for a penalty. All that’s needed is for the striker to go to ground. In most cases, the striker must go to ground to avoid being clobbered by the rushing keeper. Given Eduardo’s injury history, you’ll forgive him if he’s not eager to be demolished by the massive Boruc. No one knows exactly what Eduardo was thinking in that moment, but he must have expected contact, it looked as if the contact was coming, and he allowed himself to fall. No matter what gloss you want to put on it, it was essentially a dive. But to make an international incident of this is absurd. Arsenal won the tie 5-1 on aggregate. Celtic were clearly second best. And Eduardo’s dive was certainly no different or worse than what we used to see from Cristiano Ronaldo on a weekly basis…Except that he plays for Arsenal.
Two seasons ago Arsenal were on the wrong side of two terrible penalty decisions against Liverpool, but you didn’t see anyone rushing to our defense. In that case, unlike Wednesday’s match, it decided the tie. After the match, Arsene made this exact point,
“I have never asked in my life any guy to dive to win a penalty, but sometimes players go down because there is no other way to escape the goalkeeper’s tackle,
sometimes they dive. We got a penalty against us two years ago in the Quarter-Final of the Champions League that made the difference when Babel dived. Nobody ever apologised to us, it was a blatant dive and nobody spoke about it.”
All things considered it wasn’t the most impressive moment from Eduardo, but it wasn’t anything less than what you’d expect from the modern day striker. It’s forgiven and forgotten and with the media’s ten second attention span, soon they will forget about it too. I’m sure they’ll find some other reason to criticize us in the near future.
Ironically, the penalty award was the best thing that could have happened to Celtic. For a while it seemed to galvanize them and they enjoyed some of their best sustained pressure of the tie. But that soon subsided as our quality showed. The game drifted aimlessly for long stretches and some of that was down to uneven play from Diaby and Bendtner who gave the ball away too easily at times. Defensively we looked solid and the midfield triumverate were impressive despite the absence of a true playmaker.
Despite what I thought was a mediocre showing from Diaby and Bedtner, it was good work between the two that lead to our second goal. They worked down the right and found Eboue in the box. He kept his cool, sidestepped a Celtic defender, and delivered a confident low finish that beat Boruc to his right. Sadly, no dancing ensued although Eboue was booked for his celebration.
From there the game got even more disjointed, alternating between periods of good attacking play by Arsenal with periods of tepid, uninspired stagnation in midfield. Celtic started to revert to rough tactics, but Gonzales did a decent job keeping it under control. Arsene Wenger brought on Aaron Ramsey, and then Wilshere and Arshavin. Unfortunately, Ramsey got the worst of a midfield collision and limped through the rest of the match.
Once Arshavin came into the game we looked dangerous again, and it was no surprise that he delivered the third goal. Aaron Ramsey sweetly slid the ball across the top of the box to find the Russian who spun to his right and fired the ball into the low, left corner of Boruc’s net. It was another typically clinical finish from Arshavin and his first of the young season. Perhaps the best thing to come from this match is Andrey opening his account. Forwards tend to get goals in bunches and if this gets him started then it could be an important moment in our season. Maybe this was the prelude to a five-goal game at Old Trafford…
After Arshavin’s goal the game was well and truly dead and Mowbray acknowledged defeat by bringing McGeady and Maloney off the pitch in preparation for their SPL match at the weekend. As the game limped to its conclusion you could see that our players were merely going through the motions. It’s hard to blame any Arsenal player for being complacent with a 5-goal aggregate lead and massive match at the weekend. But the last few minutes were frustrating because you could just see a Celtic goal coming and I have no doubt that Arsene will be annoyed that we conceded deep in injury time. Donati’s volley was absolutely brilliant and it’s unlikely that he could score that goal again if you gave him 100 chances. But it was down to lax play from Arsenal that Celtic had the opportunity to attack for the final few minutes. That made the final score 3-1 but it would be silly to get to aggravated by the consolation goal. Again, the aim was to qualify for the group stage, and that’s precisely what we did.
Overall it was a good night at the Emirates and an Arsenal side playing without a few key starters gave a good account of themselves. The players stayed focused for most of the match and the defending was particularly creditable. Arsene Wenger has been effusive in his praise for William Gallas so far this season, and once again, he lived up to every word of it. He and Vermaelen have forged a really impressive partnership and Gallas has chosen to let his play do the talking this campaign. If he keeps this up, the unpleasant memories from last season will be long forgotten.
Song and Denilson were solid in the midfield but Eboue really was the man of the match. At one stage I had to rub my eyes to make sure I was actually seeing Eboue racing across the pitch to pressure the ball in the Celtic half. His workrate was fantastic and he showed the guile and craft in midfield that might have otherwise been lacking with Cesc out of the lineup. Sagna had his usual good game at right back, but again, there were worrying moments for Clichy. Although he had a decent night, Clichy has developed a very troubling tendency to stand off his man. He allows dangerous crosses to be served into our penalty area rather than closing down. It’s something that started last season and hopefully it’s not a habit that becomes entrenched. We’ll see.
I suppose if you want to be a contrarian you can look at this tie and say that we scored from a deflection, an own goal, and wrongly awarded penalty and that the final aggregate score is misleading. I think that’s nonsense. We were by far the superior side in Glasgow regardless of our good fortune. We were equally superior on Wednesday without the services of Cesc or Van Persie. So while we may have finally gotten some decent luck on our side, in many ways we earned our luck and were deserving of victory. Full credit to Tony Mowbray who was classy in defeat and resisted the temptation to blame his team’s fate on luck or the penalty decision. He acknowledged our quality and admitted that the better side won.
With the battle of Britain behind us it’s time to start thinking about Old Trafford. I won’t even start thinking about that game at the moment because it’s a bit more than I’m ready to digest. Suffice it to say that it’s a massive game. Although it’s early in the season, and there are only three points on offer, it’s an important chance to measure our progress against last season. The bitter memories of our Champions League semi-final meeting with United are still too fresh, and it will be fascinating to see if we have really come as far since then as we all think we have. More on this game in the days to follow. But, really, what an action-packed start to this season.
Today is the Champions League group stage draw. While it will be interesting to see which powerhouse team we’re paired with, it’s the other two teams that are far more important. No matter what happens in the Champions League, if you beat-up on the weaker teams in your group, you are almost ensured progression to the knockout phase. Thanks to the new playoff system, there are some really unimpressive teams left in the draw and we’ll be rooting for one or two of them to land in our group. We’ll see what happens soon enough.
I’ll start dissecting the hype and the news surrounding our trip to Old Trafford tomorrow, but in the mean time, enjoy reading various articles calling for Eduardo to be fed to sharks and for the Emirates to be demolished.