By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal inched towards qualification for the Knockout Stages of the Champions League with a goalless draw against Marseille at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night.
At the Stade Velodrome at fortnight earlier, Aaron Ramsey’s last-gasp goal had split two evenly-matched sides in a sterile game. This was a much more lively affair but the deadlock could not be broken.
Andre Ayew spurned Marseille’s best chance in the opening minutes while Ramsey sidefooted wide the standout opportunity for the Arsène Wenger’s outfit.
Both teams displayed energy and enterprise in pursuit of a winner, with the visitors enjoying a territorial advantage in the latter stages.
But, with Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker in tandem for the first time, the home defence stood firm.
Even in-form Robin van Persie, who had been bench-bound at kick-off, could not find the net after his introduction.
Dortmund’s 1-0 win over Olympiacos leaves Arsenal a point clear of their opponents this evening and four beyond the German side in third.
They visit Emirates Stadium on November 23 and a home victory will secure safe passage to the Knockout Stages of the Champions League for the 12th successive season.
In his pre-match press conference, Wenger had revealed that he was tempted to stick with the side that swept past Chelsea in the second half on Saturday.
In the end, he resisted.
The talismanic Van Persie was a substitute so, with Marouane Chamakh (knee) out injured, Ju Young Park was the spearhead striker.
Carl Jenkinson replaced Johan Djourou at right-back and Vermaelen came in. Laurent Koscielny, a star at Stamford Bridge, was rested.
The first game between this sides at fortnight ago had been a pretty flat affair and the sides had been separated by a late Arsenal flourish.
The match began in exactly the opposite fashion.
Marseille had strung together three straight wins since then. As a result, they were sparky and penetrative from the opening whistle. But most importantly, they were prepared to gamble going forward.
The Ayew brothers might have grabbed a goal apiece in the opening minutes.
First Jordan’s backheel went wide of one post then Andre stabbed Loic Remy’s cross inches wide of the other.
The supplier also fired over the bar.
Arsenal had to responded – and they did. Gervinho fed Walcott on the right and the winger, whose goal had instigated the comeback at Chelsea, saw a low drive tipped past the far post by Steve Mandanda.
By the midway point of the half the home side had not restored equilibrium and they might have gone ahead when Santos stormed forward and clipped a cross to the far post for the onrushing Ramsey.
The Welshman steered his shot wide and then thumped the ground at his own profligacy.
However, Remy was still a pest on the right. He cut in and raced onto Benoit Cheyrou’s flick before firing wide.
Still, by the half-hour, Arsenal had a measure of control and spurned a couple of solid chances with Ramsey and Park both dithering when they had a glimpse of goal.
The Welshman was having another impressive game in midfield as Arsenal successfully began to turn defence into attack successfully.
However, they could not find the opener before the break.
Within four minutes of the restart, Van Persie began to warm-up. It was an incentive for the Arsenal XI on the pitch and a threat for their opposition. Before that, Vermaelen had headed over for the home side.
However, as they had in the first half, Marseille started well. When Cheyrou’s cross flashed past Szczesny and spliced the six-yard box on the hour, Wenger had seen enough.
On came Van Persie. Park’s workmanlike game was over. Shortly afterwards, Tomas Rosicky replaced Ramsey.
The manager was freshening up his side and looking for the victory which would secure qualification.
It did not have an immediate effect.
In fact, as we entered the final 15 minutes, Marseille still had the edge and Van Persie was employed clearing up chances in his own area rather than making them at the other end.
In fairness, on 77 minutes, the Dutchman did find space beyond the visiting defence but his chip was snaffled by Mandanda.
It had been a half of few chances but both sides began to gamble as the minutes ticked away.
Andre Ayew headed wide and Morgan Amalfitano drove off target as Marseille grew in confidence. Arsenal were pretty much playing on the break at the end.
A goal never came and Marseille’s celebrations suggested they were the happier side at the final whistle.
However, for Arsenal, this result was surely a minor detour en route to the Knockout Stages.
Referee: Paolo Tagliavento (ITA)
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