Group of death doesn't quite kill Arsenal

When the draw was made for the group stage of the Champions League, most Arsenal fans would have gladly taken 12 points from the six matches if offered them before a ball was kicked. In most other seasons, that would have comfortably been enough to see Arsenal into the knock-out stages with a game to spare and, in most cases, have them sit top of the group.
This was no ordinary group of death though. Marseille’s inability to win a point, the complete lack of draws and the slightly confusing UEFA permutations meant that the Gunners weren’t guaranteed a place in the last 16 before the final game in Naples. Having dispatched Napoli 2-0 in the earlier game at the Emirates, Arsenal should have been confident about going there and getting a result to see them top the group. For the majority of the game, whilst not necessarily dominating proceedings, Arsenal had control of the game and looked ready to see out the draw that would secure top spot.
However when Gonzalo Higuain reminded Arsenal why the club were interested in signing him this summer by opening the scoring, things got a bit nervy. Then Mikel Arteta got a second yellow card and Arsenal were down to ten men. Whilst the second yellow did look like it was a soft decision, it was definitely a foul from the Spaniard and having been cautioned it was always going to be a risk. It’s just frustrating that Arteta only committed two fouls in the game and got sent off, whilst Valon Behrami committed five for Napoli and didn’t receive a caution.
Switching to having two banks of four, Arsenal just about did enough to avoid the three goal defeat that would have knocked them out, with Napoli scoring a second goal with virtually the last kick of the game. It wasn’t pretty, but it was job done.
It was a strange performance from Arsenal considering that the talk before the game was that the players were just going to treat it like a normal match and go out there to win it, rather than just trying to contain Napoli knowing the hosts had to win big to go through. However despite those words I think the fact Arsenal didn’t have to win was in the minds of the players. They weren’t going to take undue risks going forward, or speed the match up, when they knew it wasn’t necessary to. It didn’t make the game a great spectacle, and whilst the score-line was still 0-0, you could claim Arsenal’s game plan worked.
Things did become a bit panicky at 1-0, and at that point most fans wished Arsenal had just gone at the game at full tilt from kick off and effectively put it beyond Napoli in the first half. However I think there was also an element of the players knowing what’s in front of them on Saturday. When a win wasn’t essential, would it have been wise to bust a gut against Napoli and then be knackered for Manchester City on Saturday lunchtime? It would have made the game easier and less tense to watch, but arguably could have tired the players more before the big league game.
Having started the night at the top of the group, it’s disappointing that Arsenal qualified in second place, but virtually all Gooners would have accepted that when the draw was made. That was the toughest group Arsenal have had to negotiate in many years, and 12 points is a good haul.
The problem now comes in the round of 16. Finishing second means Arsenal will face one of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain or Bayern Munich. Having been knocked out by a big team in the last 16 after finishing second in the group before, the Arsenal players will have to prove that this team are made of more compared to the last few years. Some of the fear factor of these sides though has been wiped away with the wins in Munich last season and in Dortmund in the group stages. Personally, I don’t think Barcelona or Real Madrid are as strong as they have been, even though Ronaldo is at the peak of his powers, and Arsenal know they can get a result against Bayern Munich. Atletico are the more unknown side but have started impressively in La Liga, whilst PSG, despite Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the money, can definitely be put under pressure and beaten.
Arsenal have just about survived the group of death so should believe that they can beat anyone in the Champions League. At least in the round of 16, things will be clearer for the Gunners so they won’t be caught out by not knowing whether to attack or defend, which was their downfall in Naples.


Ramsey leads Arsenal to the win in Wales

Aaron Ramsey is 22, but he may never have a period of form for the rest of his career. However the fact he’s 22 means that he could also get better and better. Considering how young he was when he arrived at Arsenal, it feels like Ramsey has been around for a long time, but the reality is that his best years at Arsenal are ahead of him.
Against his former team, Ramsey scored two in Arsenal’s 3-0 victory away to Cardiff. With other teams in and around the top four playing on Sunday, Arsenal have built up a healthy advantage and increased the pressure on the chasing pack.
Ramsey received an excellent reception from the home supporters, in stark contrast to the one he got at Swansea earlier in the season, and he showed respect back by not celebrating either of his goals. The first of which was a fantastic header and the second was a clinical finish on the break in injury time. Cardiff fans looked proud that the best player in the Premier League this season started at their club, but Arsenal fans are very pleased that he’s wearing the red and yellow of the Gunners. There’s very little to add about Ramsey and how both him and Wenger deserve immense credit for his improvement. If he continues his form, Arsenal will continue to have a big say in the title race.
If Ramsey will grab the headlines, Arsenal’s big-money headline maker quietly made some telling contributions. Mesut Ozil has had some criticism for not being as involved in recent weeks, but for a player that is still finding his way in the Premier League, he’s the leading assist maker in the division. Since missing his penalty against Marseille, it’s hardly played on his mind and restricted his performance. He grabbed an assist for Jack Wilshere on Tuesday and then laid on two goals against Cardiff. His cross for Ramsey’s header was excellent, and his pass for the second Arsenal goal made Flamini’s job of finishing it a lot easier. Whatever people say about Ozil, he has already shown he can make a difference in decisive moments.
After an indifferent performance against Southampton, Mikel Arteta was back to his best against Cardiff with an excellent performance in shielding the defence. He made some vital interceptions, tackles and his passing was consistent. For years, a holding midfielder has been one of the areas of the pitch that the media always highlight as one the Gunners need to improve on. Now, Arsene Wenger has two excellent options in that position. Flamini was excellent on Tuesday in the Champions League, and Arteta did the job on Saturday. With that strength, Wenger can rotate and keep the energy levels up in a key area of the pitch.
Arteta made a key contribution to the Arsenal defence keeping another clean sheet, their fifth in six games. The back four were solid, but when Cardiff did get a sniff of the Gunners goal, Wojciech Szczesny was again in unbeatable form. Gibbs hesitated when the ball ballooned in the air in the Arsenal box, and Frazier Campbell pounced to head towards goal. Szczesny’s diving save to his right was as spectacular as it was vital. At 1-0 up, Cardiff did exert some pressure, but the Arsenal team didn’t buckle.
Going into the last ten minutes, the game was quite tense and in previous seasons, Arsenal could have panicked at just 1-0 up. However the strong squad meant that the introductions from the bench calmed Arsenal down and made the difference to seal the three points. Although introduced to defend, the rolled-up sleeved Mathieu Flamini burst forward to get on the end of Ozil’s perfect pass to hammer in the second goal. Nacho Monreal did another good job in helping see out the game on the left hand side. Even though he came on at the start of injury time, Theo Walcott used his pace effectively on the counter attack to grab an assist for Ramsey’s second goal.
To have reliable and effective options on the bench is reassuring. To have negotiated the first third of the season with some injuries whilst still maintaining good form bodes well for the rest of the season, when the returns of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski and (optimistically!) Diaby will give Arsenal other options to change matches.
Cardiff City drew with Manchester United at home last weekend and beat Manchester City earlier in the season, so this 3-0 win shouldn’t be underestimated. With the double header with Manchester City and Chelsea to come in December, Arsenal are giving themselves a cushion of points and increasing the pressure on the teams behind them. With every match, belief is being strengthened that this really is a different Arsenal team and that it’s one that can challenge for the title.

Are we serious yet?

The way things have gone for Arsenal in recent years, it’s understandable that some fans don’t want to get ahead of themselves in this season’s title race. The history of the collapses, mediocre performances and fights for fourth mean that title talk is still difficult to believe for some people. For doubters before this weekend, Arsenal were yet to play a top team in their good start to the season, with critics waiting for them to be found out against a club near them in the table.
At the start of every season, Arsene Wenger always says that you can’t really judge teams by the table until 10 games into the season. Well, after Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Liverpool, we’re 10 games into the season and Arsenal are five points clear on 25 points. They can no longer be accused of only playing ‘easy’ teams either. Liverpool were second at kick off time at the Emirates on Saturday evening, and had the much heralded ‘SAS’ strike partnership that were supposed to be the best in the league were against a defence that is still regarded as shaky by some. A clean sheet should quieten a few people down.
There was the odd alarming moment for Arsenal’s back five, mainly when Szczesny played an inadvertent one-two with Daniel Sturridge, but on the whole the Gunners’ back line was superb against Liverpool. Suarez and Sturridge struggled to manoeuvre themselves space to have many clear-cut chances with Mertesacker and Koscielny playing brilliantly. Bacary Sagna continued his impressive season, whilst Kieran Gibbs was outstanding before going off with an injury that hopefully isn’t serious. Even with the creativity of Coutinho and a few changes in formation, Liverpool couldn’t break through the impressive Arsenal defence.
The clean sheet was also down to the excellent performance in holding midfield from Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard is different to the all-action style of Mathieu Flamini, but he kept everything ticking over and was very disciplined at staying in position when the game became stretched.
Whilst the Arsenal defence was good, they were able to turn to some magic from the midfield to secure the three points. Santi Cazorla had a frustrating early-season injury, but he looks to be finding his form again and gaining a better understanding with those around him. He arrived perfectly on cue in the first half to initially head the ball against the post before hammering in the rebound on the volley. It’s no coincidence that when he’s on form, Arsenal tend to win games.
However even someone with the talent of Cazorla is being usurped by Aaron Ramsey. Although to be honest, so is everyone in the Premier League. After declining a chance to shoot from outside the box moments earlier, when Aaron Ramsey got the ball Iin space 25 years out from goal in the second half, he absolutely lashed the ball past Mignolet. The shot had some dip and swerve to go perfectly over the goalkeeper and just under the cross bar. The goal capped another impressive game for Ramsey as he made Steven Gerrard look immensely average.
Following the midweek defeat to Chelsea, questions were understandably asked about squad depth. However, it’s worth pointing out that Arsenal were missing Mathieu Flamini, Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski on Saturday. To be able to be where they are in the league with that injury list is impressive. The squad does look thin if that list grows, but in previous seasons that number of missing players would have crippled the Arsenal squad. Not this season.
The win is a great start to a big week. Borussia Dortmund in Germany will be a completely different challenge on Wednesday, but a good result is possible for the Gunners if they play with the same intensity that they showed against Liverpool.
Whilst we might still be struggling to believe that the title is a real possibility, the players clearly believe it. They bounced back brilliantly from two disappointing home defeats and have two clean sheets in a row in the league. This Arsenal team have to be considered as serious title contenders because after ten games, they aren’t just in the pack, they are setting the pace.