I reckon it’s fair to say your analysis of last night’s game very much depends on whether you’re a glass half full/ half empty kind of person. The half empty posse will, not unnaturally, point to a concession of a two goal lead and a second half in which Arsenal appeared not to show up. The half full crew, however, will- entirely fairly- point to the fact that we established a two goal lead in the first place. They would also highlight an improvement, in the first 45 minutes, in the quality of football above anything we’ve managed since beating West Ham, whenever that was.
And, you know what? I reckon both sides would have a point. Without being an Arsene apologist, I’m not someone who believes he should be thrown into the Tower of London for the rest of his days. I have, however, been concerned at how the loss of Kieran Gibbs and Abou Diaby has slowed the pace of our game to something reminiscent of Grandpa Simpson chasing a Tortoise in the “Springfield Files” episode of the Simpsons. Clearly, this is a problem not helped by injuries to Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, (sigh) Gervinho and the fact Lukas Podolski has been struggling out on the left.
Last night, in Gelsenkirchen, whether by choice or because nobody else was available, Theo Walcott was restored to the first team proper and I think just having a wide player with pace, whether he can actually do the things he wants to or not, made a massive difference to our team. For us, he provided an outlet, for Schalke 04, he provided a threat. And it really ain’t rocket science. Any left back playing professional football would probably fancy their chances against Aaron Ramsey, but the searing pace of Theo Walcott is an altogether different proposition.
Theo, clearly, wasn’t the only change to the team last night, with the skipper shifting left to make room for Laurent Koscielny and sending Andre Santos to the sidelines. However, it was Theo who gave Arsenal something of a surprising lead after 18 minutes. Schalke had started the match more or less where they left off in north London. I think we expected that. What wasn’t expected was how a long pass forward to an offside Olivier Giroud would take a deflection from a Schalke head and put Giroud in on goal. Giroud took an age to decide what he wanted to do and, as he went to shoot, a wonderful recovery tackle stopped him in his tracks. Luckily, Theo had followed him up the pitch and, via a couple of lucky bounces, tapped the ball into an empty net.
It got better minutes later. Wilshere in space on the right hand side of the box. I reckon he could have shot, but he didn’t. He passed the ball behind Giroud, who recovered and found Podolski wide left, Podolski turned his marker and fired a cross into the far post, Giroud met it with a diving header and flashed the ball into the net.
Let me ask you a question: when was the last time you saw an Arsenal player score with a diving header?
The two goals seemed like a tonic to me. Rather than meekly tap tapping the ball around, we were firing it into feet, opening spaces up and looking much improved. If we could just get to half time… no.
In injury time Cazorla slipped in trying to play the ball out of defence, Lewis Holtby found Huntelaar and he struck a shot across Mannone and into the far corner. 2-1 and game on.
The second half was reminiscent of so many Arsenal away games in Europe. The home side, buoyed by their fantastic support were up and at us and at us and at us. We couldn’t hold onto the ball, so it was always going to be a struggle to get anything going. Mannone had made a few good saves before probably the most important one of the night. Had Huntelaar buried the one on one chance he had early in the second half, who knows what might have happened? As it did happen, he hit Mannone’s legs and so we held out for just that bit longer. But it was no surprise when Jefferson Farfan found himself in space at the corner of our six yard box, Vermalen having been dragged into the middle, and blasted the ball home off our captain’s legs. Not much Vermaelen could have done about it and it was batten down the hatches time. Annoyingly, moments before the goal, the referee had inexplicably halted an Arsenal attack so a grounded Schalke player could receive treatment. Podolski’s protests at that bizarre decision inevitably saw him booked. I just hope Arsene hasn’t said anything about it- we’ve only just got him back!
The expected Schalke siege never quite materialised and, in fact, it was Arsenal who went closest to winning the game when Theo went through in the very last minute. He was never quite set though and his shot bounced, in a Huntelaar fashion, off the keeper’s legs. He might have passed to Giroud, but I don’t blame him for backing himself- he probably didn’t even realise he was there.
So, we bagged ourselves what- for me- was a creditable point. Obviously, it was disappointing to only take a point fter the start we had, but if you said to me you wouldn’t have taken it before hand, well, I’d call you a fucking liar. What was the real disappointment for me was the paucity of options on the bench, with Coquelin and Santos only being summoned in the last minute of normal time. How a Rosicky (I know), or a Diaby (yeah, yeah), or an Oxlade-Chamberlain would have given us fresh impetus for the last 20 minutes. Not to be too down about things, two home wins in the next round of fixtures will see us qualified with a game to spare. Of course, any kind of positive result for Olimpiacos in Germany will make things interesting, as would Arsenal failing to beat Montpellier, but let’s not concern ourselves with such trifles for now…
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