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Olympiakos 2 Arsenal 1: Second-Tier Gunners Lose at Athens…Yet Again

Tumultuous times are back in the Red half of North London and the recent run of results haven’t been satisfactory to say the least. With the Gunners travelling to Athens, far away from the troubles of the Premier League, the summit of Group B was there for the taking as Schalke went to the south of France in search of a positive result.

Wenger had spoken so much about fatigue in recent times and he made it clear that his focus was on getting his team’s Premier League campaign back on track. This made the boss travel to Greece with a relatively under-strength squad with some experienced folks as well.

For some strange reason, Wenger selected Szczesny to be between the sticks in a “dead-rubber” fixture like yesterday’s tie. I was expecting to see Vito Mannone somewhere in the mix but it was the youngster James Shea that accompanied Szczesny to Athens, a player yet to make his debut with the first team.

The defense had a somewhat awkward mix with skipper, Thomas Vermaelen playing alongside the forgotten figure, Sebastien Squillaci in the heart of Arsenal’s defense. Carl Jenkinson and youngster, Jernade Meade provided wit through the flanks.

The midfield had a familiar look with Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin playing behind the returning Tomas Rosicky. In attack, Gervinho and the Ox played on the flanks with the long lost figure, Marouane Chamakh getting his first start since the days Umaru Musa Yar’ Adua ruled Nigeria.

The game itself was a landmark fixture for Arsenal’s stalwart, Arsene Wenger, as it was his 150th Champions League fixture in charge of the Gunners. It’s also worth noting that he has guided Arsenal to second round qualification for 13 seasons in a row, but the ultimate prize has evaded him with his closest shot in the 2006 final against Barcelona in Paris.

Arsenal really lacked ideas in the final third and this was on display all game long.

Gervinho made one of his trademark runs before slotting a pass for Chamakh but they weren’t in the same wavelength as the attempted pass was behind the Moroccan forward. Djamel Abdoun was a constant thorn in Arsenal’s flesh and he fashioned a chance for his Algerian compatriot, Rafik Djebbour, but Vermaelen was on hand to make a good block.

The Ox made a mazy run on the right before lofting the ball into the box. Chamakh rose highest to flick the ball into the danger area but the Olympiakos defense failed to clear the ball to safety. After a goalmouth scramble, the ball fell kindly to Ramsey but the Welshman chose the best moment to miscue the ball, and a great chance went begging.

Maybe Ramsey had no plans of killing any notable figurehead this time, but for a player of his caliber the miss was shameful though.

Many believed that Chamakh would have used the game to stake a claim for a first team berth but his misery was compounded when his appalling first touch took the ball off his stride after receiving a delicious over the top ball. Elsewhere in the Santiago Bernebeu, Luka Modric lofted a similar diagonal ball to Jose Callejon and Ajax’s net was rattling afterwards.

Leandro Greco teed up Abdoun and the Algerian wasted no time in blasting the ball goalwards. Szczesny responded with a good save to see off that challenge. Abdoun continued to stamp his authority on the game and there was a moment were he took on the entire Arsenal defense before using the outside of his boot to locate his skipper, Vassillis Torosidis. The defender lost his bearings and fired a hapless shot over the bar.

When it seemed as if both team were going to head into the break with a goalless stalemate, the Ox and Gervinho combined well before the Ivorian threaded a carefully-weighted ball to Rosicky’s path. The onrushing Czech maestro used his great technique to blast in a one-time shot that left the goalie with no chance in Hell. It was one-nil to the Arsenal, but I still had my doubts that they had put the game beyond doubt.

At the start of the second half, Arsenal brought on Andrey Arshavin to replace Rosicky. The little Russian was involved straight away from a pass from Chamakh but his volley was aimed straight at former Manchester United goalie, Roy Carroll.

Abdoun conjured a trick from his magic box to tee up Ljubomir Fejsa but the midfielder’s effort hit the side netting. Olympiakos continued to probe and attack the Arsenal rearguard and they got a deserved equalizer when Abdoun’s cross hit Ramsey’s chest and dropped kindly for Giannia Maniatis. The midfielder wasted no time in nicking it past Szczesny to make it 1 – 1.

Meade didn’t put a foot wrong all game long but Paulo Machado got the better of him before drilling a cross to an unmarked Djebbour but the striker’s header was easy pickings for Szczesny.

The Greek giants had rested their hitman, Kostas Mitroglou, with half an eye on their fiery clash against rivals, Panathinaikos. Mitroglou came on for the terrorizing Abdoun and made an instant impact, with a sweet curler that went past Szczesny to make it 2 – 1.

Late on, Arsenal brought on youngster, Martin Angha to replace Meade. Despite coming in with minutes to spare, the Swiss defender must have relished the moment of making his Champions League debut.

At the end, it was another disappointing result in a game that would have had relevance to the Gunners had they won as Montpellier held Schalke to a 1 – 1 draw. On the bright side, the other teams that won their groups, PSG, Dortmund and Malaga aren’t the sort of teams that would make me pee on my pants if we are drawn against them in the Knockout phase.

In his post-match interview, Wenger had reiterated his desire to focus on his team’s stuttering Premier League form, but he’s hoping for a Christmas present, which probably means a draw against the likes of Malaga and all. If Arsenal is drawn against Barcelona or Bayern Munich, my smiles would turn upside down but to win such competitions you have to knock the best sides out.

In our road to Paris 06′ final, Arsenal faced the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus but emerged victorious. You can’t compare the quality of the 2005/06 squad to what we have now but we have to take each game as they come, with all focus on Saturday’s clash against West Brom.

With the Baggies above Arsenal in the log, a victory will go a long way in helping the Gunners close in on that last Champions League spot, but they have to bear in mind that Everton and Tottenham are on the prowl as well.

Tonight’s focus will be on the Shakhtar vs. Juventus game, let’s see if Chelsea would be the first ever defending champions to fall at the first hurdle.

Sayonara.

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Arsenal 3 Olympiacos 1: The Gunners Gain a Stronghold of Group B

Arsenal’s deadly duo on song again

A response was needed after that disappointing showing against Chelsea and as expected, Arsene Wenger was sighted in the director’s box with Ivan the Terrible (also had a few words with Woy Hodsgon as well). With UEFA sanctioning the boss with a three-match touchline ban, Dark Defensive Lord, Steve Bouldimort, was going to be the stand-in gaffer for the night but he had stated before the game that he had everything under control.

The starting line-up was tweaked a bit as it was Per Mertesacker’s turn to pick up a flu, so Laurent Koscielny retained his place in the heart of the defense alongside Thomas Vermaelen. Further up the pitch, Francis Coquelin deputized for Abou Diaby, allowing Mikel Arteta (that passed a late fitness test) the license to drift forward to support Santi Cazorla and the forward line. Lastly, the Ox got the nod ahead of Aaron Ramsey in the right wing.

Pundits and commentators alike kept waxing lyrical about Arsenal’s change in fortunes in defense. This time last year, the Gunners had conceded 14 goals in six Premier League games but the Dark Lord’s black magic has seen things change for the better, even though some work still has to be done in certain areas, such as defending set pieces properly.

Arsenal’s illustrious visitors from Piraeus, Olympiacos, have a very appalling record on English soil with 10 defeats in their last 10 visits to the shores of England. Their entire away record in the Champions League is equally atrocious, as it is believed that the Greek outfit has won only three of the last 42 European visits to several football grounds across the continent.

However, Arsenal began on the wrong foot when Vito Mannone and Thomas Vermaelen had communication problems with the captain not being in the same wavelength with his goalie from a simple throw; gifting Paulo Machado a chance to make the Gunners pay but Arteta reacted quickly to block the effort.

The Ox showed great tenacity to win the ball from Jose Holebas on the right-hand side but his cross failed to connect with any player donning the Red and White. Cazorla tested the keeper from an acute angle but Balasz Megyeri did well to make a fine stop as the goal-bound shot had some dip and swerve as well.

With 20 minutes gone at the Emirates, the statisticians showcased the display HUD revealing the passes attempted and ball possession but eyebrows weren’t raised when Arsenal had a staggering 112 passes compared to Olympiacos’ 27. The ball possession count was 61% – 39%.

Kostas Mitroglou was a widely isolated figure in the first half but he did well to lash in a shot through a pile of bodies, and Mannone did well to save the effort. The visitors almost grabbed a shock lead Giannis Maniatis shot met an unmarked Machado but he preferred to kill a bird in the sky with a gaping goal looking at him.

Arsenal finally made all the possession count when some brilliant play from Cazorla and Podolski down the left hand side provided a cut back for Gervinho. The Ivorian with a massive forehead steadied himself before drilling a tame shot past Megyeri. The Hungarian keeper’s dive was as fast a tortoise trying to retract its head back into its shell.

I’m sure you get my drift.

Gervinho - Arsenal FC v Olympiacos FC - UEFA Champions League

Gervinho has certainly gotten his grrove back

 Arsenal almost shot themselves in the foot when Vermaelen uncharacteristically handed Machado a chance on a plater with another awful pass, but the midfielder’s shot was easy pickings for Mannone. Arsenal’s complacency was eventually punished when an unmarked Leandro Greco swung in an inch-perfect cross that was headed home by the ineffectual Mitroglou.

That late equalizer was a kick in the teeth as the Gunners had it all to do in the second 45 minutes.

Gervinho did pretty well on the left hand side to fashion a chance for Santi Cazorla but his left-footed finish was wayward to say the least. However, there was no stopping Gervinho a second time as he showed great determination to ward off some challenges before slotting a simple pass for Podolski. The German Machine lashed a shot with his cultured left foot and it went past the keeper’s legs to put Arsenal on the driving seat.

Good goal from Poldi

Arteta swung in a dead ball from the right but Koscielny glanced his header wide. Vermaelen was rightly disappointed as he was certainly in a better position to score. The Ox had a sloppy game but his standards so he was withdrawn for Theo Walcott that hasn’t signed the ting yet.

Vermaelen made one of his forays forward and he was almost found by Walcott but the goalie showed good anticipation to intercept the effort. However, the guys at the commentary box gave pieces of their minds in regard to the captain bombing forward even though his team was ahead. A good point though but I guess that forays like this made him score six goals last season (Newcastle and Fulham, anyone).

Wenger Lord Bouldimort took out the goalscorers for Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud and as expected, they earned a rousing ovation from the Arsenal faithful. Like Matchday 1, Le Forehead and Prinz Poldi came up with the goods again for Arsenal.

Walcott used his reserves of pace to get past the fullback before drilling a cross for Giroud. The Frenchman reacted first to the ball but his shot was saved by the goalie. As the commentator rightly pointed out, Giroud is excellent in getting into dangerous positions in the opposition area but he hasn’t matched such off the ball runs with the required end-product, goals.

When it seemed as if Olympiacos would get something from the game, Giroud cushioned a perfectly-weighted header to Ramsey’s path. The Welsh captain controlled the ball, shoved off the challenge of a defender before chipping the ball past Megyeri to put the game beyond doubt.

Aaron Ramsey Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal chips the ball into the net to score his team's third goal during the UEFA Champions League Group B match between Arsenal FC and Olympiacos FC at Emirates Stadium on October 03, 2012 in London, England.

A goal Carlos Vela would have been proud of

Shortly after Ramsey’s goal, I tweeted this,

To cap off a splendid night for Arsenal, Giroud’s former employers, Montpellier, got a late equalizer against Schalke 04, allowing the Gunners to gain a stronghold of the group with maximum points from their first two games. A double header against Schalke 04 follows and the outcome of the contest will go a long way in determining the victors of this group.

Mannone (6.5) didn’t have much to do and was rightly beaten with a peach of a header from Mitroglou.

Jenkinson (7.5) played like a Bacary Sagna without a black skin and that awkward hairstyle of course.

Gibbs (7.0) was very strong in his challenges and supported the left attack well.

Vermaelen (6.5) was a bit erratic with his distribution and he can count his lucky stars that Olympiacos isn’t a clinical side.

Koscielny (6.5) made a few good interceptions but had a distinctively average outing.

Coquelin (6.5) was very sloppy in the first half but gained confidence as the game progressed.

Arteta (7.0) balanced the play at the middle and made a couple of vital interceptions as well.

Cazorla (7.0) was a live-wire with the ball at his feet. His style of play in the game reminded me of Aliaksandr Hleb with all the close control from relatively tight situations all game long.

Ox (6.5) wasn’t too convincing in my opinion. Invoked the frustrating spirit of Abou Diaby as he always wanted to get that extra touch was it was highly unnecessary.

Podolski (7.5) had a very good game and scored a well-taken goal to put his team on the ascendancy.

Gervinho (8.5) scored another good goal that is making him to lead Arsenal’s goal scoring charts. It’s also believed that his last four goals came from his last four shots on target. Someone wake me up from my dreams but has Gervinho become that clinical?

Walcott (7.0) put up a decent shift on the right and impressed a few with his dribbling skills. He still has to sign the ting though.

Giroud (7.0) kept finding himself in dangerous positions and provided a good assist for Ramsey.

Ramsey (7.0) had another good cameo and capped it up with the goal of the night.

As its a simple rule of one game at a time, Arsene Wenger and his guns will head to Upton Park this weekend to get their title challenge in the Premier League back on track, and nothing more than a win will suffice.

We wanted a response, and boy, we got a response.

Sayonara.

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Olympiacos Preview: Time to Get Things Back on Track

A day Mannone would want to forget

Today hasn’t began on a great note for me with my BlackBerry acting like Olivier Giroud when he’s one on one with an opposition goalie. It has given me its fair share of problems since I purchased it but this time, my screen is white without any error message. But it’s aii…I’ll live.

In the wake of that horrendous miss that would have salvaged a point for Arsenal, Giroud has come out to defend himself, stating that he made the right choice,

“It was a good pass from Alex (Oxlade-Chamberlain) and I think that I needed to go round the keeper as he came out quickly. If I chipped the ball, the defender could have saved it. So I think I made the right call.”

Whether he made the right call or not, the bloody ball failed to enter the net so it doesn’t matter after all. Arsene Wenger still has the final say on who his center forward is going to be tonight and I certainly won’t mind seeing Theo Walcott getting a run-out there. Gervinho has done pretty well in that pseudo-9 position but he’s better suited on the wings.

After a somewhat disappointing defeat to Chelsea last weekend, Arsenal will have to convince the fans that it was just a glitch with a very good performance tonight against the Greek champions, Olympiacos Piraeus. Last season, goals from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Andre Santos were enough to seal the victory for Wenger’s side at the Emirates but the dead-rubber return leg at Athens was marred with an ankle injury suffered by Andre Santos.

Lukasz Fabianski was between the sticks in that fixture but his night was short-lived when he suffered a nasty injury after a gash from Thomas Vermaelen. Vito Mannone came in his stead and endured a horror outing that night.

Olympiakos took the lead when David Fuster sent a simple through ball that brought out the worst in Squillaci and Djourou as both defenders went for the ball but they ended up guiding the ball to Rafik Djebbour that rounded Fabianski before slotting the ball to an unguarded net. Djebbour, Vassilis Torossidis and Tassos Papazoglou are going to miss tonight’s clash through injury.

Emmanuel Frimpong lost the ball in the midfield and the ball ricocheted towards Arsenal’s danger area. Kevin Mirallas beat Squillaci for pace so Mannone had to take the role of a goalkeeping sweeper but he had to use his head as the ball was outside his box. Fuster hoicked the ball goalward but a backtracking Mannone stunned everyone when he chose to use his feet to attempt to clear the ball when he could have caught the ball easily.

Arsenal was offered a glimmer of hope when Ignasi Miquel flicked the ball into the box towards Marouane Chamakh who cushioned the ball carefully for Yossi Benayoun and the Isreali showed great technique to lash the ball past Megyeri in goal. The Greeks put the game beyond doubt when Francois Modesto was on hand to tuck the ball from four yards after Olof Mellberg’s header hit the bar.

Today’s game offers a different outlook and Arsenal would look to solidify their stronghold in the group with a victory before facing Schalke 04 in a two-legged affair on Matchday 3 and 4.

To team news, Arsenal still has some players in the treatment table, as Abou Diaby is set to be out for three weeks. There are also doubts over the fitness of Mikel Arteta that is believed to have picked up an ankle injury. Arsene Wenger has stated that Diaby’s injury is an opportunity for another player to stake his claim for the first team.

Well, the team isn’t short of options in midfield, with the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Emmanuel Frimpong, Francis Coquelin, the Ox and even Jack Wilshere all capable of deputizing for Diaby but with Arteta is a major doubt, Santi Cazorla will be braced with playing alongside two new midfielders.

In my honest opinion, I’ll pick Francis Coquelin for the holding role and Aaron Ramsey for the box-to-box role. The Welshman hasn’t been on anybody’s good books but the duo of Wilshere and Frimpong aren’t ready yet for first team action. The Ox will be better suited in a position on the wings.

Besides, Wenger has declared that he has no plans of rushing Jack Wilshere straight into action after being out for almost an eternity.

A player that will be sure of his place tonight is the ever-present and impressive Carl Jenkinson. The fullback has been excellent in deputizing for Bacary Sagna and the French defender can’t rest on his laurels any more because Jenko means business this season.

Jenkinson believes that Arsenal can go all the way to win the Champions League because the club’s ambitions are sky-high. With his performances attracting serious attention, the fullback has been contacted by Finland for their World Cup qualifiers but he has stated that international football can wait because he wants to concentrate on his club form.

Don’t you just love this kid?

To my proposed team selection for tonight’s game, I’ll expect Vito Mannone to remain between the sticks as Damian Martinez doesn’t offer stiff competition for the Italian. According to Wenger, Wojciech Szczesny is still three weeks out. In the defense, Per Mertesacker will be drafted back into the squad, following Laurent Koscielny’s antics on Saturday. The remaining trio of Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson and skipper, Thomas Vermaelen, will remain unchanged.

As I’d written earlier, the midfield triumvirate would probably be Francis Coquelin, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla. In attack, I have a hunch that Wenger might give Olivier Giroud the nod ahead of Theo Walcott to spearhead the forward line, with Lukas Podolski and Gervinho providing support from the flanks.

Enjoy tonight’s game with some Heineken.

Arsenal, please give a befitting birthday gift to my friend, Anayo Nwosu, or @K_Sturna as he’s known on Twitter.

Happy Birthday boss.

Sayonara.

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Olympiakos 3 Arsenal 1: Vito Mannone steals the show with a ‘classic’ movie scene

The picture was painted vividly for everyone to see. Arsenal Football Club had qualified as the winners of Group F so it was an encounter of little or no importance to Arsene Wenger. As expected, the figureheads of the club were given breathers as they watched their make-shift teammates take a flight from London to Athens.

The gooners expected a large chunk of the team that was impressive in the Carling Cup against Manchester City and no eyebrows were raised when Lukasz Fabianski stood between the sticks with Vito Mannone serving as his able deputy for the night. Sagna’s injury has seen the emergence of a versatile Laurent Koscielny so Johan Djourou was given another chance in the unfamiliar right back position.

Everybody expected to see Ignasi Miquel in the left back position but Arsene Wenger opted for Roberto Carlos…Andre Santos. The manager also took out time to visit the caves of France to summon Sebastien Squillaci from his lair while Thomas Vermaelen was given the nod to lead the Gunners in Athens.

The midfield was reminiscent of the team in the Carling Cup with Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong manning the middle of the park while Andrey Arshavin played in front of them. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Yossi Benayoun offered wit down the flanks and the focal point of the attack was the Moroccan bereft in confidence, Marouane Chamakh.

Lukasz Fabianski was clearly a rusty figure leading to this match because his severe lack of match fitness and he showed signs early on when his clearance went straight at Kevin Mirallas. The midfielder teed the ball up for Modesto but Emmanuel Frimpong did well enough to make Modesto mistime the ball.

Arshavin had the chance to draw first blood when Chamakh set him up well but he somehow missed from eight yards out. Andre Santos charged forward to receive Arshavin’s pass before drilling the ball into the danger area but Chamakh couldn’t get to the ball in time so another chance went begging.

Frimpong created a good chance for Chamakh but the confidence-ridden forward took a touch too many before Olof Mellberg executed a perfectly-timed sliding tackle but the ball fell gracefully for Frimpong that smashed it to the side netting.

Olympiakos took the lead when David Fuster sent a simple through ball that brought out the worst in Squillaci and Djourou as both defenders went for the ball but they ended up guiding the ball to Djebbour that rounded Fabianski before slotting the ball to an unguarded net.

Fabianski showed more horror moments when his panicky clearance went straight to Mirallas but the midfielder’s audacious attempt was just a whisker away. However, the goalie’s evening was short-lived as he received a nasty gash on his knee following a clash with his captain for the night Thomas Vermaelen.

The game became a rough affair with tackles flying in for fun. Francis Coquelin and some bloke called Holebas clashed and shortly after that, Chamakh and Papadopoulos made the orderly run into the pitch with stretchers. Vito Mannone replaced Fabianski after his knee injury but this will be a game he’ll want to forget in a long way after his antics in the 36th minute.

Frimpong lost the ball in the midfield and the ball ricocheted towards Arsenal’s danger area. Mirallas beat Squillaci for pace so Mannone had to take the role of a goalkeeping sweeper but he had to use his head as the ball was outside his box.Fuster hoicked the ball goalward but a backtracking Mannone stunned everyone when he chose to use his feet to attempt to clear the ball when he could have caught the ball easily.

Arsenal had a stinker in the first half and everyone hoped that the second half would be an improvement. Olympiakos continued their onslaught on the Gunners but Arsene Wenger and every Arsenal fan became deeply concerned when Andre Santos suffered an injury and he was replaced by Ignasi Miquel.

Miquel got involved in the buildup to Arsenal’s goal. He flicked the ball into the box towards Chamakh who cushioned the ball carefully for Yossi Benayoun and the Isreali showed great technique to lash the ball past Megyeri in goal. The goal was meant to inspire a comeback for the Gunners but Arsene Wenger’s men showed no desire and they where punished late on.

Frimpong conceded a cheap free kick on the right and it was swung into Arsenal’s danger area by Mirallas. Olof Mellberg was the first to get to the ball and his header hit the post but Modesto was on hand to tuck it in from four yards.

The fans of the Greek  outfit were the happiest folks on Earth at the sound of the final whistle but their elation was changed to sadness in a matter of seconds when Olympique Marseille delivered a sucker punch with a last-gasp win over Borussia Dortmund despite being two goals down.

Fabianski (6.0) didn’t have a good outing before getting injured.

Djourou (6.5) didn’t offer much in attack.

Andre Santos (6.5) did okay but almost gifted the hosts a goal with a poor header.

Vermaelen (7.0) was dominant at the back.

Squillaci (6.0) was a time-bomb waiting to explode in Arsenal’s defense.

Frimpong (6.0) was sloppy in midfield and conceded too many fouls.

Coquelin (6.5) had a few decent touches in midfield.

Arshavin (5.5) put up another putrid performance.

Benayoun (8.0) showed a lot of flair and scored a thing of beauty.

Chamberlain (7.5) was very impressive down the right with his dribbles and burst of pace.

Chamakh (6.5) wasn’t too impressive but he had a hand in Arsenal’s goal.

Mannone (5.0) proved why he’s currently Arsenal’s third choice goalie.

Miquel (6.5) did well in Andre Santos’ stead.

Rosicky (6.0) could’ve done a lot better with the chance Benayoun created for him.

Arsenal ended the group in pole position and they’ll avoid the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid in the draws for the knockout phases. This match had no importance in terms of qualification but the performances of Arshavin and Chamakh were very questionable.

Arsene Wenger has to hope that Arshavin will step up his game when Gervinho represents his motherland in the African Cup of Nations because the Russian plays like a man down and it’s going to be difficult winning games with 10 men from the start of the match.

Everton comes up next and the big Guns will be back in action.

Till then,

Sayonara

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