Arsenal 2 (Van Persie 49, 86) Borussia Dortmund 1 (Kagawa 90)
You should never get ahead of yourself in football. Sing the praises of a team too early, and they can fade away and make you seem foolish (see the pundits handing Chelsea the title after five games of last season). Similarly, write any top team off at your peril. Three months ago, we were ‘in a relegation battle’, having lost heavily at Old Trafford. Without Cesc and Nasri we had lost all creativity and our defence was falling apart. Wenger himself was under pressure, and the Kroenke regime was being written off before it had barely begun.
At least, that’s what the kneejerking story-busters told us.
Since the Blackburn defeat, we’ve won 11 out of 13, with the draw with Marseille and the derby defeat the only blips on that road. We’ve clambered our way back into contention for the Champions League spots (in fact, surely if Chelsea are still in the title race, we are too), and last night became the first Premiership side to reach the Champions League knockout stages, a feat that has now been achieved twelve years in succession. To top it off, Marseille’s defeat at home to Olympiakos means we top the group no matter what happens in our final game.
To put that into perspective, any of the other Premiership sides could realistically crash out after their final game. United are probably best placed, needing to avoid defeat in Basle, but having nearly lost to them at home, they won’t be taking things for granted. Chelsea lost again last night, and Valencia’s huge 7-0 thumping of Genk leaves them needing only a score draw or better at Stamford Bridge to knock Chelsea out. Man City, meanwhile, could beat Bayern Munich and still exit the competition. Are there enough TV channels available to show up to seven Premiership sides on Thursday nights?
That we avoided such drama was due to two factors – improved defensive stability, and the ability to strike at the right moments. Dortmund started brightly, pinning us back in the early stages, and perhaps earlier in the season they would have been allowed to fashion more clear cut chances. As it was, they had much of the ball without seriously testing Szczesny. At the other end, we weren’t faring much better – the closest we came was when Walcott ran clear from Ramsey’s through ball, but the keeper came out sharply to clear the danger.
By half time, however, we had assumed control of the ball, helped in part by Dortmund losing two players, including the dangerous Gotze. After the break, we pushed forward with more purpose, and when the opening goal came, the scorer was no surprise – once again, Van Persie was in the right place at the right time to power a header low into the corner. But the goal wasn’t really about him – it owed everything to the craft and surprisingly sublime skill from Alex Song, whose driven run towards the left corner flag ended with a jinking piece of skill to bamboozle a pair of defenders, before picking out the captain with a pinpoint cross.
Before the goal, Song had been excellent in his usual defensive shielding role, and immediately after providing the killer moment, he reverted to what he knows best. Dortmund had to step out, knowing defeat was disastrous to their hopes, and they came again, leaving more space at the back for Walcott and Gervinho to exploit. The former was threatening, but it was the latter who should have wrapped things up, showing a delightful piece of skill but dummying the keeper when through on goal, only to hesitate and allow the defender to get back and dispossess him. I maintain that he will turn into a very productive player for us, but right now his end product is very hit and miss. Or very hit, miss, miss and miss.
When we did finally seal the game, and qualification, it was an old school goal reminiscent of Bould and Adams. Like in those days, it was a corner, flicked on at the near post by a big centre half for the captain to tuck home at the far, but in the modern incarnation it was Vermaelen and Van Persie with the critical touches. With news filtering through that Marseille were behind, we knew we would be winning the group with a game to spare.
Some of the player relaxed, Song and Djourou combining to give Dortmund a sloppy consolation with virtually the last kick of the game. Vermaelen and Szczesny blew their lids, a great sight for anyone who still believes we don’t care about clean sheets. We do. It took a small gloss off what was an impressive defensive display, particularly from Song, who is unrecognisable from the player we happily saw leave for Charlton on loan in his laughing stock days. How times change.
So a tough Champions League group has been successfully navigated. The champions of Greece and Germany have been dispatched, along with the dangerous Marseille, and all without needing a result from the tricky trip to Olympiakos. Now, we can rest and rotate during the manic December period, safe in the knowledge that Barcelona cannot be waiting in the first knockout round.
While our kids get their run out in Greece, three other Premiership teams will attempt to avoid the ignominy of joining Stoke, Birmingham, Fulham and that shower down the road in Europe’s secondary competition. Pretty much every pundit expected that to be us.
I hope Wenger feels smug today. He deserves to.