Belfast Telegraph

Home Sport Football European

Arsenal survive a late scare

By Sam Wallace

It was a reminder of the old, unreliable Arsenal that a team who started the night top of Group F could find themselves contemplating a Champions League knockout round draw on Monday guaranteed an opponent from a group that comprises Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.

Yes, Arsène Wenger's team conspired to qualify for the 14th season in a row but unfortunately for them they did so as the second-placed team in the group after Borussia Dortmund's victory over Marseilles. It means that Arsenal, like Manchester City, will go into the pot at Uefa headquarters in Nyon up against the biggest of the big guns in Europe and with their work cut out come February.

In the second half, the pressure on Arsenal became too much to bear and they conceded to Gonzalo Higuain's goal and then, to what was almost the last kick of the game, from Jose Callejon.

It never looked like the home team would get to the three-goal winning margin required to qualify but even so, given the 12 points that Arsenal have amassed, it feels tough on this team to face such difficult opposition in the new year.

They had their captain Mikel Arteta sent off for the second of two yellow cards in the second half and were hanging on towards the end. Nevertheless that should not detract from some excellent performances for the away side, especially the central defensive pairing of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, who relieved a lot of the pressure on their defence in the most difficult moments in the first half.

It is difficult to know which opponent would represent the best option in the second round. A game in Paris would probably mean the most to Wenger at a club which has tried to appoint him on a number of occasions.

He may also feel that a game against the French champions offers him the best option of a route through to the quarter-finals, in spite of the array of talent their Qatari owners have bought for them.

With an early goal for Dortmund in Marseilles, the chase was on for the home team in Naples and their famously committed support were up for it.

Rafael Benitez's team looked dangerous in the early stages, with the Colombian left-back Pablo Armero attacking down the wing and the menace of Higuain in attack.

Given the scale of the task facing Napoli, it was crucial for Arsenal that they did not offer any encouragement. In those early hectic moments they were composed, with Mertesacker making two crucial interceptions.

In fact, it was notable that the Arsenal team of 2013 looks much less fragile than some of its recent predecessors.

Mathieu Flamini and Arteta were excellent in front of the back four and were it not for two moments of questionable judgement by Wojciech Szczesny the home side would scarcely have had a sight of Arsenal's goal in the first half.

The best chance of the half fell to Arsenal when they worked a wonderful opening for Olivier Giroud via Mesut Özil and then Flamini.

The French striker's shot was saved well by Rafael Cabral and fell nicely for Özil just inside the box. The goal from Higuain on 73 minutes, however, concentrated minds. The Argentine finally beat Szczesny with a low shot from Callejon's pass.

Three minutes later, just after Nacho Monreal had replaced Tomas Rosicky in the Arsenal midfield, the Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai sent off Arteta for his second yellow card.

There was contact with his opponent Callejon but nevertheless, the Arsenal midfielder found the decision difficult to accept.

With Dortmund still drawing their game against Marseilles at that point, Benitez's team found themselves in a bind.

Go for the three goals against the 10 men of Arsenal and aim to eliminate their opponents? Or set up to defend the one-goal win and hope that Marseilles held out against the Germans?

In the end, as the news of Dortmund's winning goal spread around the ground, so did a wave of frustration. Callejon's late lobbed goal over Szczesny barely registered.

Benitez's side were out and for Wenger's players, the celebrations on the pitch were muted given the outcome at the top of their group.

They live to fight another day, and Manchester City at the weekend.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph