By Richard Clarke
Arsenal secured their first win in Champions League Group F with a tense 2-1 victory over Olympiacos at Emirates Stadium on Wednesday night.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain fired home the first in the eighth minute - a goal that made him the Club’s youngest-ever English scorer in the competition. Andre Santos added a second midway through the half.
It was a platform upon which Arsenal might have built. But Olympiacos were never granted planning permission this evening.
The Greek champions were impish and inventive throughout. A clever corner routine saw David Fuster power home a header just before the half-hour and they would worry their hosts for the remainder of the game. They came closest to equalising midway through the second half when Vassilis Torossidis curled a wonderful effort against the bar.
Straight after that let-off, Pat Rice brought on the big guns who had been rested at kick-off. Arsène Wenger, who was seeing out his touchline ban, might have shifted uneasily in his Directors’ Box seat in the final stages but his team got the job done. As Basle proved the previous evening at Manchester United, no-one at this level should be underestimated.
Marseille's win against Dortmund mean they top the Group with six points but Arsenal are tucked in just behind with four.
Wenger’s men take on the French side in their next two ties.
That 180 minutes will have a profound effect on the outcome of Group F.
Before kick-off, Wenger rotated by half-a-turn. Key players were benched - Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs and, most notably, Robin van Persie. Andre Santos, Marouane Chamakh and Oxlade-Chamberlain came in.
The manager may have had Sunday’s north London derby in mind – although in his final pre-match interview the Frenchman said playing Van Persie might have risked injury.
Laurent Koscielny was already out so Alex Song deputised at centre back alongside Per Mertesacker. Emmanuel Frimpong filled the sizeable hole left by the Cameroonian in front of the back four.
This game had been declared a sell-out earlier on Tuesday and, after the 3-0 win over Bolton at the weekend, a straightforward victory this evening would help build confidence still further ahead of Sunday’s big game.
And it would take Arsenal only eight minutes to break the deadlock.
Song’s diagonal ball was collected by Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right. He took it in his stride, received a stroke of luck when his miscue bounced back into his path off Ivan Marcano but the rest was class.
The 18-year-old raced through, threaded his shot between the legs of Olof Mellberg and into the net off the base of the post. Oxlade-Chamberlain raced off in a carefree celebration that suggested he had somewhat surprised himself with the strike.
No-one who had seen the early stages of this player’s promising Arsenal career would have raised an eyebrow.
After the goal, Mikel Arteta took centre stage for a while. He supplied the corner from which Chamakh thundered a header just wide.
The deadline day signing then threw himself towards the near post to block Rafik Djebbour’s shot following a corner by Ariel Ibagaza.
It had been a reasonable response by the Athens side but they would be stung again in the 20th minute.
Tomas Rosicky sent Andre Santos marauding down the left. His initial cross towards Chamakh was returned to him. The Brazilian cut inside his marker and sneaked a shot inside the near post.
Chamakh might have put clear daylight between the two sides after Arshavin’s chip sent him clear but he shanked his shot wide.
However, just before the half-hour, Olympiacos got the goal they probably deserved. A short corner routine ended with Ibagaza’s pinpoint delivery for the onrushing Fuster, who planted a header into the corner.
In the minutes that followed, the visitors threatened parity. Szczesny tipped over from Djebbour and blocked low at his near post from a Torossidis drive.
Arsenal regained their composure somewhat as half time approached but there remained a nervousness about their game. Olympiacos had been caught out twice but there was an attractive optimism about their offensive game and they were inventive from set-pieces.
Seven minutes from the break, Kevin Mirallas weaved his way down the left-hand channel but his powerful shot bounced off the legs of Sczcesny at the near post.
At the break, Arsenal had the lead but they did not have control of the game.
The points were very much in the balance.
Olympiacos might have stolen an equaliser in the opening minutes of the second half. Ibagaza squared a right-wing free-kick to Fuster five yards outside the area. Despite the attentions of Frimpong and a narrow space for a short backlift, the Belgian crashed a shot just wide.
In reply, Chamakh, who was having one of his most effective games in 2011, played an intelligent ball inside Jose Holebas for Oxlade-Chamberlain to collect.
This time the winger had time to steady himself but his shot could not beat Franco Costanzo.
The game was now end-to-end. The second half had been similar at Dortmund on Matchday One when, again, Arsenal had been defending a one-goal lead.
It seems that Wenger’s side are intent on doing things the hard way in Europe this season.
Just as the early storm began to blow itself out, Olympiacos conjured up a marvelous effort from virtually nothing. Torossidis weaved inside Santos and unleashed a swerving, dipping effort that beat the outstretched hand of Szczesny before battering the bar.
The chance prompted changes. Ramsey replaced Oxlade-Chamberlain and the Welshman immediately prodded Arshavin clear on the breakaway. His shot was half-blocked by Costanzo – but it was enough.
Van Persie replaced Chamakh shortly afterwards as Arsenal tried to end strongly.
The Greek side were now pushing for a point but Frimpong was muscular in midfield and Mertesacker commanding at centre back.
We expected a final push from the visitors – but it never really came.
Arsenal held on and placed another firm footstep on the road to recovery.
Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo (ESP)
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