We wanted more ruthlessness from the team and last night we got it - just about. Having gone two goals behind in the first five minutes against Standard Liege, Arsenal fought back to win 2-3 and started their Champions League campaign with a valuable away victory. In truth though, it was one of the poorest displays of the season so far but, as we have found out in recent weeks, it is better to play badly and win than to play well and lose.
The start the Gunners made to the match could not have been worse. A defensive howler from Eduardo and a dubious penalty helped put Liege two up before Wenger’s players had even had the chance to settle into their rhythm and they looked rattled in the early stages. Once the opening flurry had died down, the home team sat back and attempted to soak up the building pressure as Arsenal began to dominate possession. It was a ploy that seemed to be working admirably for them and genuine goal-threats were restricted to a minimum throughout the half.
Crucially though, a goal was pulled back on the stroke of half-time when Nicklas Bendtner got behind the Belgian’s defence and fired a rasping shot into the far corner of the net through the goalkeeper’s legs. It was a timely and essential strike. The big Dane’s goal would have drastically changed both managers team-talks during the interval and, coming just before the break, it really put the momentum behind Arsenal going into the second half. Standard Liege had spent most of the first half on the defensive and now they had to come out and play again. The main concern for Arsenal fans was that, whilst the team were pushing forward for an equaliser, they might get caught on the break just as they had done at Eastlands over the weekend. As it was, Vito Mannone deputising for Manuel Almunia had very little to do for the remainder of the game, which must have been as big a relief to him as it was to the supporters after the torrid opening to the game.
When it did come, Arsenal's equaliser was somewhat fortuitous as Alex Song appeared to control the ball with his hand before tapping it to Thomas Vermaelen to hit home in the 78th minute. The winner came three minutes later when Eduardo turned a Fabregas corner in off his knee. After UEFA’s embarrassing about-turn over the Croatian’s alleged dive in the qualifier against Celtic culminating in the reversal their decision to suspend him for two matches, it seemed inevitable that if an Arsenal winner was to be scored it would come from him. It was a highly satisfying moment for both the player and the fans.
Arsene Wenger hailed the victory as possibly a defining moment of the Gunners’ season. That seems a little excessive particularly in the light of the fact that it was a below par performance against a decidedly average-looking team. That said, a lot of heart can be taken from the fact that the players showed a plenty of endeavour in hauling themselves back into the match and some determined spirit in then converting their disastrous start to the match into a victory. After the hard luck stories of the two games in Manchester it was gratifying to see the players keep their heads up and continue plugging away. That they got a few fortunate bounces of the ball for a change too was also pleasing.
Experience of the Champions League group stage suggests that ten points is usually enough to secure passage into the knockout phase so, regardless of the manner of the performance, an away win and three points on the board is a great start. A team like Arsenal ought to be expecting to win their home games against the sort of opposition they have been drawn with. So, whilst complacency should be guarded against, last night’s victory gives grounds for plenty of optimism that the team will progress through the group stage with the minimum of fuss.
It is back to business in the Premier League on Saturday as Wigan Athletic visit Ashburton Grove. Roberto Martinez’s team have had a patchy start to the season but come into the match on the back of a 1-0 win over West Ham last weekend. From the Arsenal point of view, this is the first League match at the Grove for nearly a month and it will be a relief to see the players back on home turf after their recent travels.
It seems that so far this season every single Arsenal performance has thrown up controversy, incident and turbulence. For a change, it might be nice to see a trouble-free plain-sailing home win this Saturday! What is for sure is that the team is entering a sequence of matches that, on paper at least, look a good deal more straight-forward than the opening programme they had to negotiate.
Though the two defeats in Manchester stung, for the most part, they have looked like an improved team from last season but that improvement needs to be translated into points. The players really need to start stringing together some positive results and get themselves on a run - particularly ahead of having to face Spurs, Chelsea and Liverpool in the period before Christmas.