Two North London clubs went into European competition last night with two goal leads tucked away in their back pocket and a clear expectation of progressing to the next round.
This morning the team from N5 are European Remainers. The team from N17 are experiencing the trauma of Spexit. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be laughing yourself silly right now.
We shan’t dwell on the problems facing the noisy neighbours who, let us remember, were also comprehensively outplayed by us in the North London Derby on Sunday, but let’s just say this: Mourinho In! Please keep Jose for as long as you can!
The travails of Totteringham helped divert attention from our own lacklustre performance on the night. Playing at home against a fairly average Olimpiacos team and with a 3-1 lead from the first leg, this really should have been a cakewalk for Arsenal.
But whether there was tiredness following the NLD (although the five changes made by Arteta to the starting 11 should have provided plenty of fresh legs: 10 of them to be precise) or whether it’s simply hard for players to get their heads round a scenario where you can lose but still win, things just did not click in last night’s game.
Let’s start with the line-up. El Patron sent out a familiar back five (Leno, Bellerin, Luiz, Gabriel, Tierney). Partey was rested, with Elneny partnering Xhaka in midfield. Ceballos took the central attacking midfield role with Pepe on his right and Smith Rowe to the left, and we had Aubameyang back off the naughty step and playing as the central striker.
On paper it looked well capable of doing the job and, in terms of chances created on the night, it should easily have done so. However, it was one of those evenings where Aubameyang passed up golden opportunities and where our overall play was sloppy and careless at times.
Unfortunately the selection of Ceballos did not work out. I hoped that getting the opportunity to play in the CAM position would really spark the Spaniard into life and, indeed, he played some incisive passes in the early part of the game.
But we have been spoilt recently by having been exposed to lots of minutes of Odegaard and Smith Rowe playing with speed and dynamism. By comparison Ceballos looked leaden-footed and slow. He needs more touches than either Ode or ESR and seems to run with the ball always slightly under his feet, slowing him down.
I don’t want to beat up on Dani, who has had some good moments in an Arsenal shirt, but you can’t help but feel that we won’t be seeing him in N5 next season.
The move that led to the Olimpiacos goal was initially caused by Ceballos (not for the first time) being indecisive and getting caught on the ball and then dispossessed. However, he was well up the pitch and Luiz can share some of the blame for allowing El Arabi to cut back inside before sending a deflected shot past Leno and into our net.
By that time (the 51st minute) we should have already put the game beyond doubt, Aubameyang having blasted over from close range and Pepe almost scoring when an attempted square ball for Auba deflected off the Olimpiacos ‘keeper and trickled past the post.
But the Greeks, knowing they needed three goals, had started the second half determinedly and we were having trouble controlling possession and keeping them at bay. Careless passes, lingering in possession, bad decision-making all contributed to shifting the momentum in favour of Olimpiacos.
Within minutes of going behind Arteta made two changes which helped wrest control back in our direction: the struggling Ceballos was replaced by Odegaard and Elneny, who had not made any major errors but was not making his presence felt strongly enough in midfield, gave way to Partey.
Immediately we looked better, with Ode in particular grabbing the game by the scruff of its neck and driving us forward. Olimpiacos were still threatening us and you could see we were nervous, but now we were taking the game back to them as well.
Odegaard played a neat one-two with Pepe but blasted his shot over the bar; Pepe fired a Tierney cross goalwards only for the ball to unluckily deflect off ESR’s head then Aubameyang got through for a one-on-one with the goalie (the sort of chance we’ve seen him score many, many times) but chipped it wide.
Partey, meanwhile, had a few sloppy moments of his own, including giving away an unnecessary free kick just outside our penalty area, but his strength in midfield and willingness to break up Olimpiacos moves and drive forward were another important element in seeing us safely through to the end.
The wind finally went out of the opposition’s sails when Ba was sent off after getting two yellow cards in quick succession (one for putting an arm across Tierney’s face and a second for dissent).
In the end it was a disappointing result on the night, but with the satisfaction of knowing we were through to the last eight of the Europa League.
Meanwhile in Zagreb….
Player Ratings from RC78
Leno – 5
Bellerin – 5
Luiz – 5
Gabs – 6
Tierney – 7
Xhaka – 6
El Neny – 5
Pepe – 6
Ceba – 4
ESR – 5
Auba – 4
Personally I would give Gabriel 8 and MoTM – I thought he was outstanding in defence. And I would give Odegaard 7.5 for his performance with a 7 for Partey. But then I’m always a bit more generous with my ratings than RC 🙂