Qualification to the next phase of Champions League, the first of any English club to do that in this season’s competition. Finishing as group winners with a game to spare. Robin Van Persie continued his more than impressive goal-scoring form. Another stand-out defensive performance from the team (the one single minute apart). All that makes for a very good night of football.
As expected, Arsene Wenger resisted the urge to make any changes to his side and for the first time this season, started the same eleven players for consecutive games. To be fair, previously his choices were also limited by injuries and suspensions. This is a team in form and full of confidence, there was really no need for any sort of modifications.
We knew we had to win to secure qualification but Borussia Dortmund probably needed the points more than us, seeing where they are in the group. They had to go for the win and that set the tone for the start of the game. The German team wrested control of the game with their quick passing and persistent pressuring off the ball.
It was a tactic that worked because we simply couldn’t keep hold of any possession. Our players found space to be limited and time on the ball even more limited. Every single player in the yellow shirt were working their socks off to deny us space and movement (an attribute which I wish Arsenal would do, game in game out).
While Dortmund might have shaded Arsenal in the first half in terms of possession, we gave nothing away in defence. We were never caught out of position. We might not have pressurised Dortmund like they did to us but we stood our ground when defending. The task was greatly helped by the half hour mark.
Two of Dortmund’s better players in Sven Bender and Mario Goetze had to be substituted due to injury. Bender apparently suffered a broken jaw in his collision with Thomas Vermaelen, like clashing into a metal barrier. Hope he recovers from this though. All eyes were on Goetze but he failed to complete 30 minutes of game time as he had to go off with a knock.
The rest of the first half played out pretty much the same way. However, with the substitutions, Dortmund’s threat were far less than what it initially was. Slowly but surely, we gained control of the match but just couldn’t find the breakthrough. Matt Hummels was on hand to clear away most of the danger. Our best chance of the half came through Theo Walcott. He was put through on goal but Roman Weidenfeller did well to stop Walcott.
We knew the game was there for the taking and within 4 minutes of the restart, we took the lead. Remember Alex Song in the Tottenham game earlier this season? It was reminiscent of that. A mazy run combined with his quick feet, Song found himself free on the left. The cross was sumptuous and RvP just couldn’t miss with that header.
Dortmund tried to get themselves back into the game but the goal seemed to have knocked the wind out of them. We had to wait until the 86th minute to kill the tie. This time from a set piece, a corner to be more precise. I can’t remember the last time we actually score via a corner kick. Vermalen flicking the ball at the near post and RvP pouncing at the far post.
Dortmund pulled one back right before the final whistle. Hesitant defending the cause of it. We had the chance to clear the ball at the right side but somehow managed to make a hash of it. Shinji Kagawa finished cleanly past the despairing lunge of Wojciech Szczesny. The sight of Song showing his frustration at conceding a goal proves how much the team would have liked to keep a clean sheet.
However, in the overall context of things, it was a very calm composed display from Arsenal. Never flustered in the entire game, we were patient with our build-up and never let the lack of ball possession trouble us. It was as mature a performance that I can think of. Everyone just knew what they had to do and stuck to their job.
Song will be my man of the match for this one. He was rock solid once again. Every time Andre Santos went forward and lost the ball, Dortmund looked to counter on the left of our defence. Every single time, it was Song who covered that position. He was quick on the tackle and did not commit a single foul while doing so.
Walcott and Gervinho looked bright but contributed less than what they showed in recent weeks. The latter was also culpable for missing a one-on-one chance in the second half. Indecision to either take it round the keeper or make the shot, allowed the Dortmund defenders to nick the ball. Mikel Arteta provided the perfect foil for Song and there was even time for Abou Diaby to make his first appearance of the season.
Job done in the Champions League, for now. Wenger can now take his back-ups and reserves for the final group game in Greece. From being considered unable to get past Udinese in the play-off, we’ve now become the first to go through (from the Premier League at least). This team is stronger and more united than what others perceived.
Onwards we march.