Fresh from a third successive victory in an enthralling counter against Everton, Mikel Arteta returned to the Emirates looking to confirm Arsenal’s place in the last 16 of the Europa League. The Spaniard would take charge of the Gunners’ 10th meeting with Olympiacos, who currently lead the way in the Greek Superleague.
Having taken a 1-0 lead from the first leg courtesy of Alexandre Lacazette’s 81st minute strike, last year’s runners up were in prime position to book their tickets into the next round, however could not afford to be complacent. Arteta’s strong team selection took those concerns into account.
Arsenal made only two changes from their 3-2 win against the Toffees at the weekend. Bukayo Saka came in at left-back for Sead Kolasinac, who suffered a “significant” shoulder injury against Carlo Ancelotti’s men, while Lacazette replaced Eddie Nketiah up front.
It’s a pleasure and certainly a relief to see how well Saka has taken to that left-back role in the absence of Kolasinac and Kieran Tierney. The manner in which the Bosnian trudged off the pitch using his shirt as a makeshift sling was almost a mirror image of Tierney’s shoulder injury away to West Ham back in December.
Our back-line has had it rough this season, but Saka has exceeded expectations defensively and offensively, registering 10 assists in all competitions thus far. Tying the 18-year-old down to a new contract ASAP should be of paramount importance for the Arsenal board; he has all the potential to become a top player down that left-hand-side.
The first 20 minutes of the match was… how do I say it… lacking in quality. The 5000 or so strong Olympiacos crowd were in magnificent noise throughout the half, and their side showed a few signs of attacking intent, but could and maybe should have been down to 10 men as Ousseynou Ba hacked down Nicolas Pepe right on the edge of the area.
We’ve already been treated to a taste of what the Ivory Coast international can do from dead ball situations; many Gooners fondly remember his two free-kicks against Vitoria earlier in the campaign, however he couldn’t keep this one down as his effort flashed over the crossbar.
Arteta’s side were having to be extremely patient in the first 45, and Lacazette thought he had broken the deadlock only for Saka to be correctly ruled offside in the buildup. Nevertheless, it was a brilliant cross from the young Englishman and Laca was in the right place at the right time, which is highly promising.
What wasn’t promising was our total lack of a clinical pass in the final third. Plenty of times Pepe could have taken the chance to run at the Olympiacos defence, but instead turned and passed backwards, thus leading to the move slowing down and eventually breaking down. A goalless first half was a fair reflection of a boring 45 minutes in our lives that we’re never getting back.
Many a time this season we’ve seen Arsenal ride out a slow first half and come out all guns blazing in the second. But it would be Pedro Martins’ side who would grab that all important first goal. A corner swung in by Mathieu Valbuena was met by Pape Abou Cisse, who was allowed to glide effortlessly through the defence and power a header into the far corner.
Arteta’s side were being well and truly punished for their lackadaisical attacking play, and a total inability to defend balls into the box. In terms of a response to Olympiacos’ opener, there wasn’t one. The Gunners were of course seeing plenty of the ball, but just ran out of ideas every time they got near the opposition box.
Pepe, once again our most dangerous player, made twist after turn in a phenomenal burst of dribbling, before firing straight at the keeper a couple of minutes later. Lacazette couldn’t get enough on a header after Shkodran Mustafi kept the ball alive in the same phase of play, but Arsenal had certainly begun knocking on the door.
Nevertheless, the Gunners’ positive finish to the end of the game wasn’t enough to avoid extra time. A dull first 15 minutes convinced Arteta to bring about the change that so many Arsenal fans were looking for – Lacazette off for Gabriel Martinelli.
It just had to be the young Brazilian to be involved in the goal that so nearly booked Arsenal’s place in the pot for the last-16 draw. A looping cross from Mesut Ozil was met by the 18-year-old, who headed on for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to smash home an acrobatic effort and send the Emirates into pandemonium.
That joy would be extremely short-lived however, as the prolific Youssef El-Arabi calmly slotted home under no pressure whatsoever following a cross. And that’s exactly how it ended, with Olympiacos knocking last year’s finalists out on away goals.
Arsenal’s European journey, and their 10-game unbeaten run came to a painful end on a hugely frustrating night in North London. From the semi-finals two years ago, to runners up last year, Gooners would start to believe that this year would be third time lucky. But football doesn’t have any sympathy for these little anecdotes. The route to the Champions League just became significantly more difficult for Mikel Arteta.