Watching Arsenal this season is a bit like going to the dentist: it’s an unnecessarily stressful experience but at the end of the day, they tend to get the job done. Sometimes, on nights like last night, my desire to go under general anesthetic and ask to be woken up when it’s all over is extremely strong.
On paper we won 3-1, the same scoreline we achieved against the same team in Belgrade. On paper we qualified for the knockout stage of the Champions League for the tenth (or eleventh?) season running. But goodness me we made life difficult for ourselves.
With Belgrade packing their defensive third with as many players as possible the first half was a predictably difficult for our boys. To criticise them for not making many chances would be harsh — our forward players were working extremely hard and Belgrade’s attempts to nick a goal for themselves were quarter-hearted at best — but our lack of goal-mouth pressure was nevertheless quite stressful for the viewing public.
I thought Arsene Wenger’s decision to change his formation to 4-4-2 on such a vital night of football was a poor one. The rigid nature of the formation combined with the presence of two industrious rather than creative central midfielders in Alex Song and Denilson ruined our attacking cohesion. Fortunately Robin van Persie, smart lad that he is, adjusted well to the situation and began to drop deeper to receive the ball as the first half dragged on.
His intelligence lead to our only real chance of the half, a clear-cut penalty that also lead to the first goal. Wanting to make a mark on his return, van Persie took the kick himself — turning away Samir Nasri’s warranted claims to take on the responsibility — and convincingly converted.
As take the leading so often does to this team, we played some good football leading up to the break. Partizan’s reluctance to maintain their defensive shape continued to make things difficult though, and a 1-0 half-time lead was all we could manage.
The second half summed up this season’s Arsenal for me: a soft goal conceded, intense pressure unwillingly welcomed but just enough quality to make the final score look convincing. The twenty minutes that unfolded between Cleo’s equaliser and Theo Walcott’s fine finish were genuinely worrying: with Braga v Shakhtar poised precariously at 0-0 a goal to the Portuguese side and no change to the score in London would have seen us go out of the tournament.
But just as against Fulham we found enough quality in the final third to score not once, but twice and turn a potentially disastrous evening into the footballing equivalent of a Valium shot. 3-1 it finished, our most recent trip to the dentist a relative success.
Our final position as group runners-up leaves us with just four potential second-round opponents. Real Madrid and Barcelona do not make for pleasant reading, whilst out-of-sorts Bayern Munich and a frankly ordinary Schalke do (particular for a Berlin-based writer who is excited at the prospect of adding to the Arsenal aways support in Germany). It’s true that to be the best you have to beat the best, but I would be extremely keen to avoid both Spanish sides.
As for our next league challenge, an away trip to Old Trafford to play Manchester United, it is obvious that we will have to improve on last night’s performance. The irony is that United’s desire to win the game will probably allow us more space to play than was afforded against Partizan, but the obvious negative is that the Mancunians will offer us far more problems in defence. We conceded cheaply again last night and simply must avoid that fate in five days time.
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