Arsenal finished as runners-up of their Champions League group despite beating Steaua Bucharest last night.
Arsene Wenger’s side accounted for the Romanian champions 2-1 at the Emirates Stadium but finished second after Sevilla’s late surge saw them steal the points away to Slavia Prague to guarantee the Spanish side top spot. Arsenal went one up through Abou Diaby’s 8th-minute strike and took a commanding lead into the break when Nicklas Bendtner struck again just before half-time. Steaua Bucharest did pull one back through substitute Dorel Zaharia’s fine header but it was too little, too late as Arsenal held out for their fourth win of the Champions League group stages.
There’s not much point going into the performance too much as this was effectively a dead rubber, but in my eyes there were two major positives to come out of the game. The first was the welcome return of both Robin van Persie and goalscorer Diaby to the starting lineup and the second was that the side was able to get back to winning ways before the crucial Premiership clash with Chelsea on Sunday.
Both van Persie and Diaby looked sharp and after coming through 70-odd minutes each they look a good bet to play a big part in the Chelsea game. When you consider that Mathieu Flamini is likely to return and Cesc Fabregas and Alexander Hleb are still chances to make the squad then it looks like Wenger will be able to field a much stronger side than the one which slumped away to Middlesbrough last weekend.
Regardless of the almost pointless nature of the fixture, I think it’s important that Wenger’s side grabbed a win before meeting Chelsea and that they did so with such a controlled performance is pleasing. I thought Alexandre Song added some much-needed dynamism to the centre of the park and up front Bendtner again sent out another very clear ‘I’m here if you need me’ message to the Arsenal coaching staff. I don’t think Emmanuel Adebayor’s position is under threat at this stage but as I’ve said in the past it’s good to know Bendtner is ready and raring to go if injury befalls his African teammate.
Second in the group no disaster
The major negative to come out of the night was of course Sevilla’s win in Prague which ensured that Arsenal finished second in the group, and will inevitably face a very tough second-round opponent. Wenger spoke a little bit about this after the match, unsurprisingly pointing to the success that his side had in the competition two seasons ago and suggesting that a tougher opponent may bring out the best in his side.
“We knocked Madrid and Juventus out two years ago. What is good if you get a big club everybody is focused and up for it and at their best.”
I’ve spoken about this previously and I totally agree. There is a clear pattern of Arsenal struggling against smaller sides in the knockout stages of the Champions League over the years and I really feel a more difficult opponent could force the players to lift their game. Wenger’s side will face one of Porto, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Barcelona or Real Madrid in the second round and there’s no question that it’s going to be tough. Many people will remain hopeful of drawing the Portuguese side but I’d fancy Arsenal if they had to take on any of those sides. Except maybe AC Milan, those guys scare me.
Some news that broke before the Arsenal-Steaua Bucharest was the announcement that Emmanuel Eboue and Kolo Toure have been named in the Ivory Coast squad for the African Cup of Nations that kicks off in January. As a result, Eboue and Toure will be unavailable from the start of January until midway through February, but I had a little run through the fixtures that are taking place during that time and when it’s all said and done it’s nowhere near as bad is it could’ve been. There are six Premiership games in all during the period, four of which are at home and the toughest of them all looks to be an away clash against Manchester City.
When you consider that Adebayor could’ve been missing as well I think things have actually worked out quite well for Arsenal. The biggest worry is of course the absence of Toure (I’m sure most people will be delighted with Eboue having some time off), but as long as Johan Djourou returns to the squad and Flamini is still around protecting the back four then I don’t think Arsenal will have too many problems. That’s something that cannot be said of Arsenal’s Sunday opponents who will lose no less than four key players; Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel. Ouch.
What do you think?
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