Sweet Sixteen for the Sweet Sixteenth Time in succession!
Last night’s performance was not one of the best ones ever, but it certainly was close to it. Olympiakos are not strong enough an opponent to qualify last night’s victory as truly ‘great’. Nevertheless, it was a very fine, passionate and professional performance by Wenger’s men, and we have every right to be proud of them. Yesterday the Gunners completed the trilogy of our great escape: two splendid, hard-fought-for wins against Bayern and Dynamo Zagreb was followed by the demolition of the Greek champions in their own bastion; and it us not them who still have a chance to make it all the way to the final in Milan.
In previous encounters against the Greeks, we had already qualified for the next round of the CL, and we more than once treated the final CL group game against them as an opportunity to blood some youngsters and rehabilitate some of our (many) injured. This, combined with Olympiakos’ hostile environment and no necessity to win, often led to bad performances in which we left all three points in Athens.
This time round, we needed to score at least two goals but ideally three to make it through to the next round. We also had to make sure that they did not score, as we then really needed three or more goals to go through. Our tactics and focus for last night’s game were great and that made all the difference. You could clearly tell we were the team that qualified for the last sixteen in the CL fifteen times, and that our opponents had no experience in getting there. Olympiakos really struggled with how to approach the game as a win, draw, or even ‘a small loss’ would have been enough for them: too many options can easily lead to a lack of focus and team cohesion… and it clearly did last night for them.
We started a bit nervous, though. Olympiakos had come out to attack and get that all important goal that would force us to score at least three in order to go through. We were vulnerable in defence initially, especially on our RB side. Bellerin was often left exposed by his colleagues and Olympiakos forced through a few effective attacks from their left wing.
We did well enough not to concede a goal and especially Koz was superb in our defence from the start. After twenty minutes or so, we started to turn the game around. It started with a classic Arsenal attack, involving Giroud as our holding pivot in attack, Campbell as our winger who made an aggressive run and produced a perfect pull-back, and Flamini as our box to box midfielder arriving just in time to slot the ball into the net… a deflection and the bar prevented us from getting our first goal.
This fluent attack gave us confidence, and after it we never looked back. Soon Ozil found Rambo with a beautiful defence splitting pass on our left wing. Rambo had indicated were he wanted the ball with a quick hand wave and Ozil reacted super fast with a superbly measured ball. Aaron picked out his mate Giroud – a friendship that has needed no time to be rekindled – and Ollie made the best of not an easy header. The goalie should probably have done better but well done Ollie for being positive and make the goal keeper work. It paid off handsomely – the luck of the good-looking?
We held on to that score till half time without pressing too hard for the second. This was very impressive of the team; it showed their maturity and confidence that it would all come good. If the first goal did not have the purists purring, the second one surely would do it. Ozil played a quick high ball towards the box where Campbell was anticipating his pass. Joel had plenty to do with that Mesut ball, but he killed the ball in one go with his upper-leg superbly. He then meandered with the ball through the Olympiakos defence to spot, and then find with a precisely measured ball, the onrushing Giroud. Ollie could not miss this one and was rewarded for his involvement at the start of the attack and his great run into the box. But surely, the big plaudits should go to Joel for one of the finest non-Ozil assists we will see all season.
Two nil and almost there. What should we do: barricade ourselves in front of Cech or go all out for the third goal? The team handled this very well: we did not expose ourselves much in defence and yet we kept attacking, although at a lower tempo. Another fine attack saw Nacho shooting the ball diagonally from the box that was stopped by an Olympiakos arm: penalty, and a great chance to put the game to bed. Up stepped man of the brace, Giroud, and he scored the pen with great calm and control to complete his first ever Arsenal hat-trick. 3-0 and game over: job done with 23 minutes to go. The defence held out without too much trouble and our fine attackers helped out nicely. At the same time, they were able to unwind and relax their muscles for our clash with the desperate-for-points Villains on Sunday.
This game was a great show of maturity and professionalism, and the much used cliché, teamwork. If you had written the dream-script for this game, you would have wanted a goal within the first thirty minutes and then two more in the next forty minutes, and a clean sheet of course. You would have wanted our stars to deliver and the rest to work hard; the whole team to play as one and to play with passion for the shirt; and you would also have really wanted a new star to be born: and last night, 9 December 2015, Joel Nathaniel Campbell Samuels, born 23 years ago in San Jose, Costa Rica, was reborn a Gunner in divine Athens. And Arsene and his men totally delivered the dream-script last night!
Here we come again Europe: in the last sixteen in the Champions League for the sixteenth time in succession! Start booking your flights to Milan, fine fellow Gooners, cause I have a funny feeling we might make it all the way to the final this time round.
Ooh to, Ooh to be, Ooh to be a GOONER! 🙂
For completeness, here are the player ratings again I published yesterday:
Cech: 8 | Not much to do for large parts of the game, but always in control and he just oozes calm and control. Had a couple of routine saves to make which he did faultless.
Nacho: 8.5 | Great going forward and mostly solid at the back. He collaborates so easily with fellow defenders, midfielders and attackers. The complete full back, with a great engine and passion.
Koz: 9 | Total Warrior, whose drive, reading of the game and interceptions are an inspiration to the entire team. Great partnership with BFG tonight.
BFG: 8.5 | Left us sometimes a bit exposed with his positioning, but very strong second half. Master in the air and some very good interceptions.
Bellerin: 7.5 | Struggling a bit to get his game going, both defensively and offensively, but improved a lot in second half. Hector Vector is missing Ramsey as his steady right wing partner.
Flamini: 8 | Solid shift with more defensive discipline than at the weekend. Unlucky not to score after a fine run into the box in the first half.
Rambo: 8.5 | Great all-round midfield play, linking up midfield with attack and defence brilliantly. Just kept on motoring, and great run and cross for the first goal.
Campbell: 8.5 | Needs to toughen up to win more defensive one to ones, but great attacking game with a sublime assist for Ollie’s second: what a calm in the storm he has, and what great vision and technical ability to pick out Ollie amongst all those defenders. Continued to have a great attacking drive and helped out in defence too.
Ozil: 9 | Superb pre-assist for the first goal, launching Ramsey with the perfect through ball: how did he see that one? Led the team in all areas, always making himself available and winning vital seconds for the team on the ball.
Theo: 7 | Very rusty with his passing and ball touches, but a constant menace with his runs, creating space for others and putting pressure on the Greek defence constantly.
Ollie: 10 | A master class of total CF play: harassed the opposition constantly, brilliant hold up play to allow the team to breath and link up with him, fine defensive cover during set pieces, great runs into the box, and a hat trick. He also had the cool head to slot the penalty in, after which the game was over.