Arsenal 2 (Gallas 43, Caldwell (OG) 71)
First things first I should say that today’s headline is a bit of a sarcastic comment on the rather lazy assumption going around that Arsenal were lucky to beat Celtic. While the goals certainly had a touch of fortune about them – William Gallas deflecting in Cesc Fabregas’ first-half free-kick with his back and Gary Caldwell putting through his own net – they were nothing less than Arsenal deserved for a studious, dedicated and controlled performance at Parkhead.
The same line-up that comprehensively defeated Everton on the weekend started the game with Fabregas, Denilson and Bacary Sagna passing late fitness tests, while Abou Diaby returned to the substitutes bench.
As with the game at Goodison Park it took a while for things to get going as Celtic’s 4-5-1 formation stifled our rather more adventurous 4-3-3. Andrey Arshavin scuffed the first real chance of the game into the waiting arms of Artur Boruc while Celtic winger Scott Brown forced a good low save out of Manuel Almunia with what turned out to be their best chance of the game. Thomas Vermaelen produced a superb piece of defending to prevent a potential goal-scoring opportunity soon after, racing a full 80 yards to clear the danger after previously been caught up-field from an attacking free-kick.
Just before half-time our boys took the lead when Fabregas’ attempted free-kick was deflected in off the back of penalty-box guru Gallas. It was hard to tell what sort of trouble the captain’s initial shot might have caused Boruc in goal but the fortunate touch off Gallas gave the Celtic goalkeeper no chance.
At 1-0 at half-time all was looking good and we wasted several chances to extend the lead shortly after the break. Robin van Persie, who had a rather quiet night, pulled a shot across goal before Denilson almost scored another spectacular effort, narrowly missing the bottom corner.
Van Persie scuffed another shot from just outside the area and some good defending from Gallas up the other end prevented another half-chance for Celtic before our boys made it 2-0. Substitute Diaby made space in the centre of the park before letting free Gael Clichy on the left and the wing-back’s cross was deflected in by Celtic captain Gary Caldwell. A somewhat fortunate goal, yes, but had Caldwell not made contact then Nicklas Bendtner was ready at the near post to tap it in.
So 2-0 it ended and the tie is all but over. Celtic will need to score at least two goals when the visit the Emirates in a week’s time and given the stark contrast in class between the two sides in this game it’s unlikely they will.
I said before the game that I would be happy with a draw at Parkhead I’m once again delighted that the Arsenal boys managed a win. Once again Thomas Vermaelen and Alex Song were terrific tonight and the pair were ably supported by a fine performance by the only “real” scorer Gallas. Vermaelen has just impressed me so much in his opening two games and the effort he put in in the first half to run 80 yards to make a clearance (and hurt a Celtic player in the process!) epitomised the aggression and dedication he has consistently displayed throughout his first two games.
Song, meanwhile, was my Man of the Match as he once again asserted himself superbly in the centre of the park. Celtic appeared to come out with a gameplan to challenge Fabregas, Denilson and Song physically and although the trio took a few knocks they gave a terrific account of the sort of physical presence they can assert. There were some crunching tackles laid by our midfield trio (Song in particular) and in the end they completely dominated the middle third for the second game in a row.
Once again the 4-3-3 formation worked well as Arshavin and Bendtner pressed high up on Celtic’s wing-backs whenever we lost possession. The thing that I’ve noticed about our new formation in the opening two games is that it appears to be less about ball retention and more about creating chances. Instead of patiently passing around the edge of the box the way we have in previous seasons, the instructions seem to be to look for the killer pass as quickly as possible if the ball is won in a dangerous area. The result? A lot more incisive passing and a little bit less “safe” possession.
Wenger’s decision to leave the majority of his starting team out on the pitch when the score was at 1-0 (Diaby for Arshavin was the only change) suggested to me that he desperately wanted to get the second goal. On the surface there might not seem a huge difference between 1-0 and 2-0 but the truth is that the second goal is likely to drastically alter his gameplan in the lead-up to the big clash away to Manchester United next weekend.
Had the scored stayed at 1-0 then the manager would have been forced to play his best line-up in the home leg against Celtic next week. But with an extra goal cushion the option is now there to rotate the majority of his players systematically against Portsmouth and Celtic and ensure that we have our strongest team – and a fresh team at that – ready for the trip to Old Trafford. As a result the second goal was crucial and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to see the likes of Emmanuel Eboue, Eduardo and Aaron Ramsey given a run-out on the weekend.
In a very different way this was just as impressive a performance and result as the 6-1 demolition of Everton last Saturday. Not only did we achieve the ideal result against a tricky opponent but it was carried out in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Parkhead with the financially crucial prize of a Champions League place on the line. There is, of course, still a job to do next Wednesday at the Emirates but only the world’s most paranoid Arsenal fan could resist feeling a sense of positivity and optimism after what was another terrific result.
Even if it was a “lucky” one.
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