Pat Rice led the Gunners for the third time in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday at home against Greek Champions Olympiakos. With the North London Darby looming on Sunday, Rice (Wenger) decided to rest captain Robin van Persie, and midfielder Aaron Ramsey so they could be fully fit for the weekend. Given the swath of injuries, including Walcott, Gervinho, Diaby, and a quintet of defenders: Vermaelen, Djourou, Squillaci, Koscielny, & Miquel; to say the squad was thin would have been charitable. Alex Song filled in at center half due to the lack a healthy center half to pair with Mertesacker, and did so admirably. That left Song’s usual holding midfield role open, which was filled by Frimpong; Chamakh got the nod in place of RvP, and Rosicky started in the middle in Ramsey’s stead. Before the match I was excited that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain got the start, and boy did he not disappoint. Watch for him in the awards section, I bet he pops up.
Speaking of The OC, he opened the scoring in the 8th minute, making a great diagonal run to the top of the box, where Song dropped in a beauty of a long ball, right to his chest. The OC stuck with it, past a defender, and finished calmly in the box. His goal made Oxlade-Chamberlain the youngest English player to ever score in the Champions League. Oxlade-Chamberlain was very involved early, showing up all over the pitch. My only criticism of his game in the first half was that he seemed to get knocked off the ball too easily. Olympiakos should have equalized on a corner (surprise, surprise!) but Arteta bailed the team out with a miracle block on the goal line. Andre Santos made it 2-0 in the 20th minute, scoring his first goal for the club.Santos streaked down the left side, put in on a ball by Rosicky, and delivered a great ball into the box to the feet of Chamakh. A great defensive effort blocked the pass, but when the ball came back to Santos, he cleaned it up with a right-footed finish. At this time, I’ll admit that I already prefer Santos to Gibbs. Both can put themselves out of position with their forward runs, but Santos delivers better balls into the box, and is stronger on the ball. I’m sure we’ll see plenty of Santos after Gibbs’ inevitable long-term injury, but I hope that he gets the lion’s share of the time even before the as-of-yet-undetermined Gibbs injury.
Chamakh should have made it 3-0 when his well-timed run and good service from Arshavin put him one-on-one with the keeper. Even though Chamakh failed to finish, he had a nice game overall, and is showing signs that he may shake his poor form from the end of last season.
Olympiakos pulled one back only seven minutes after Santos’ goal, on a simple short corner play which undid the defense, and left Fuster completely unmarked, and he made an easy finish with his head. Arsenal’s defense immediately gave away two chances after the first Olympiakos deal, again not responding well to adversity, but was ultimately able to hold it together and go in still up 2-1 at half. Despite the score, Olympiakos looked the better squad from the 27th minute until half. I was unimpressed by Arshavin and Rosicky in the first half. Sometimes I don’t think I would recognize Arshavin if he wasn’t standing flat-footed on the pitch.
The second half yielded no goals, and while Olympiakos hit the bar in the 64th minute, that was their only real chance in the half, and Arsenal looked better defensively in the second 45’. The game was wide open for large portions of the second half, with Arsenal having many chances to go up 2 or 3 goals. Chances that come to mind include the 59th minute, when The OC should have had his second of the night, but didn’t take his shot on his first touch. He also should have been able to attack left back Jose Holebas better, as he was on a yellow from the 34th minute on. Overall, Oxlade-Chamberlain played confidently, and really stood out in this Arsenal squad until he was substituted in the 67th minute for Ramsey. I thought Ramsey did well in his limited time, creating two chances immediately after coming on, though neither led to goals. Arshavin woke up from an hour-long nap after the 60th minute, and looked better in the final 30’. Overall, the defense held in the second half, and despite missed opportunities, the team still came out of the match with an important 3 points. It was a great result given the squad that Pat Rice put out there, and despite still looking weak on the back line in the first half, the team pulled together in the second half and played well together for long stretches.
And now for the awards…
Man Of The Match – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Match Savior – Mikel Arteta (that goal would have changed the match)
Jose Oquendo “Secret Weapon” Award – Alex Song (who looked pretty good at center half)
Hottest WAG – Walcott (at least she can console him if Theo loses his job to The OC)
Jim Henson Best Beard Award – Olof Mellberg