Arsenal 2 (Nasri 35, Denilson 45) Standard Liege 0(Champions League)
Job done. A comfortable win over Liege was the perfect tonic after the disappointment of defeat to Sunderland on Saturday, and it also assured safe passage into the knockout stages for the tenth successive season. Moreover, we’ve won the group, and can take a shadow squad to Greece before our trip to Anfield in the league. Mind you, now that Liverpool are out, they’ll probably do the same thing. You never know, Aquilani might even get a game.
The first half an hour was a tale of chances missed, the most gilt edged a goalmouth scramble which somehow saw Vela’s close range effort blocked, before Arshavin inadvertentlystopped Vermaelen’s thunderbolt. It wasn’t the last painful blow the Russian would take, as he needed stitches at half time after a clash of heads with Gallas. While Arshavin should be fine, the sight of Gallas looking so groggy and with one eye almost entirely shut was more concerning ahead of Sunday’s game against Chelsea.
Ironically, after a host of missed chances, the opening goal actually came when Arshavin was still off the field, and Gallas only just back on, not seeming to know where he was. A long ball forward saw a Liege defender slip, and Nasri was alert enough to finish with aplomb. It was route one, but welcome.
Shortly before half time, the second came, a swerving effort from Denilson that the keeper really should have done better with. But it was the least we merited for a fabulous creative performance, although Liege could claim to have deserved a goal of their own after Mbokani struck the post and Gallas got lucky after clearly tripping their player in the box. At the other end, Eboue also had a shout for a penalty, but he was looking for it and the award would have been soft.
The second half played out like a training match – we were looking for the match-ending third goal while conserving energy for Sunday. To Liege’s credit, they never gave up, although their frustration led to some poor late challenges, one of which broke Gibbs’ metatarsal. The official site reports him as needing an operation and three months recovery, which means it is a particularly bad break. It is a real blow to club and player – he was doing a decent job of staking his claim for the left back slot until that point.
His wasn’t the only incident – Liege ended with ten men after Gonzalez was sent off for a stupid butt on Cesc. And what maturity from our captain for not going down – he must be the first player I’ve seen in ages not roll around in ‘agony’ after such an incident. He simply rolled his eyes at the idiot and walked away. Quite why he was booked is beyond me – hopefully that won’t come back to haunt us later in the competition.
It was a strange game overall, the gulf in class was enormous, yet even at 2-0 it wasn’t entirely comfortable, probably because we were playing in such a relaxed manner. But it says a lot that we can afford to do that in Europe, and after this stroll we can forget about the competition until February, giving the Carling Cup kids a extra game to prove themselves in Greece.
I do want to mention a few players – Nasri was excellent, while on the other end of the scale Vela huffed and puffed but didn’t have a great night. I think the kid’s a phenomenal talent, and I worry that at 20, we’re putting too much pressure on him, but if he continues to struggle away from the Carling Cup he may find his path to the first team blocked.
But the real star of the show, without a shadow of a doubt, was Alex Song, who was fantastic from start to finish. It is incredible to think that two years ago, you would have struggled to find a single fan that wanted him at the club. Now, he is the vital cog holding the team together, and on top of that, he has added a layer of creativity to his play. He played with a smile on his face tonight, the smile of a man at the top of his game. What a turnaround.
We have been as impressive as anyone in Europe this season, and the comfortable nature of qualification reflects that, but the continuing pile up of injuries is a real concern. Gibbs, Van Persie and Djourou are now all long term victims, while at least six or seven others have niggles and strains. We can’t afford too many more.