In a turn of events that surprised literally no one, Arsenal found themselves up against familiar European opposition in the form of Greek giants Olympiacos. The two sides have met eight times in the Champions League since 2009, recording four wins apiece. However, both clubs would be walking out to a different anthem in Piraeus tonight as they looked to progress in the Europa League.
The 44-time Greek champions had tasted a flavour of CL football this season, but ultimately fell to third place in Group B behind Bayern Munich and Tottenham Hotspur. On the other hand, Arsenal are spending their third consecutive season in the EL, and are surely aware that a triumph in this competition could be the best route to break back into Europe’s elite.
Mikel Arteta seemed to take that fact into account with a strong team selection. Bernd Leno started in goal over cup regular Emiliano Martinez, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette both made the first XI, and Greek defender Sokratis saw a return to familiar surroundings as he started at right-back. Despite talk regarding a supposed lack of professionalism in Dubai, Matteo Guendouzi returned from the naughty step back into the midfield alongside Granit Xhaka.
There were also spaces in the starting lineup for youngsters Gabriel Martinelli and Joe Willock, while Bukayo Saka retained his position at left-back. Olympiacos head coach Pedro Martins would be expecting big things from striker Youssef El-Arabi, who is showing no signs of slowing down at 33 years old, having registered 17 goals in 23 league appearances this term.
You’d have thought the Gunners would have understood the importance of a fast start after nearly going behind early on against Newcastle United, but the Greek outfit were having much more joy in the opening exchanges, with Bernd Leno having to be alert to keep out Mathieu Valbuena’s effort.
Nevertheless, Arteta’s side began to slowly establish themselves into the game, and should have taken the lead had Lacazette not missed a sitter from only a few yards out. I, like many other Arsenal fans, were absolutely thrilled for the Frenchman when he broke his goal drought in the victory over Newcastle, but those are the kind of chances where you just have to hit the target. One can only hope that hasn’t affected his confidence too badly.
Neither side were able to fashion any more significant chances before the half-time whistle blew. Arsenal were finding it extremely hard to use the raw pace and talent of Saka and Martinelli down that left-hand-side throughout the first 45; I noticed several occasions where Saka was in plenty of space out wide and on the verge of making a run, only to be ignored and left frustrated. But Olympiacos were doing well to nullify our dangerous youngsters.
It didn’t take long for Arteta to switch things up in the second half, but the Spaniard’s first substitution certainly raised a few eyebrows. Sacrificing Martinelli for Dani Ceballos and shifting Willock out to the left was a very odd choice indeed, especially seeing as Guendouzi was evidently playing through the pain barrier near the end of the first half.
With three quarters of the game gone, it was hard to see either team breaking the deadlock anytime soon. Both sides lacked any real attacking intent and seemed content on keeping each other out, but Arsenal surely knew how important an away goal could turn out to be. The introduction of Nicolas Pepe was received very well by the Arsenal faithful, who firmly believed he could be the man to bring a victory back to the Emirates.
However, it was another one of Arsenal’s forward contingent who would find himself in the right place at the right time to make the breakthrough. After some terrific work out wide by Aubameyang to keep the ball alive in poor conditions, Saka found himself among the assists again as Lacazette was on hand for a tap-in from the Englishman’s cross.
The Frenchman’s second goal in as many games sparked new energy into the Gunners, who could have been 3-0 up in as many minutes. Lacazette’s stinging effort at the end of a quick counter was superbly kept out by Jose Sa, with Sokratis and Shkodran Mustafi both going close with headers from the resulting corner.
But at the end of the day, Arsenal held on for a vital win and a brilliant foundation with which to build upon next Thursday. While Arteta’s game management seemed questionable at times, the Spaniard’s side got the job done on the night and recorded back-to-back clean sheets in the process.
It would have been refreshing to see a bit more urgency and ruthlessness in attack from this Arsenal team, especially given the quality we have up front, but the overall attitude was thoroughly professional tonight. Barring a shock turnaround at the Emirates next week, Arteta and Arsenal look all but set to book their tickets into the last 16.
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