By Richard Clarke at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium
Arsenal surrendered their unbeaten record in Champions League Group F after losing 3-1 at Olympiacos on Tuesday night.
Arsène Wenger’s side came into this game having already secured both qualification and top spot on Matchday Five. Wenger's reshuffled team would suffer this evening as the Greek champions stormed to victory. It was no way to celebrate the Frenchman's 200th game in European competition.
The visitors went behind on the quarter-hour when Rafik Djebbour capitalised on a defensive mix-up, then shortly afterwards Lukasz Fabianski was stretchered off following a collision.
Olympiacos doubled their lead in the 36th minute when David Fuster returned a headed clearance from substitute keeper Vito Mannone into the net.
The home side were on top and pumped up. They would threaten more goals - though Yossi Benayoun’s superb volley on the hour did sap some of their intent.
With qualification riding on a victory, Olympiacos had to push for a third. It was a desperate pursuit at times but they secured the win in the dying minutes when Francois Modesto prodded home.
A late salvo from Marseille at Dortmund meant the hosts ultimately missed out on the last 16. Desperately disappointing for them.
Arsenal have the luxury of being able to move on to that stage now.
And thankfully, when they restart the Champions League in February, this result will be long forgotten.
Even before the weekend win over Wigan, Wenger had promised he would field a Carling Cup side with a strong backline for the final game of Group F.
That is precisely what he did.
Only defenders Thomas Vermaelen and Andre Santos retained their places. Another eight of the players on show had played in the defeat to Manchester City last week. But, unlike that Carling Cup tie, Wenger reverted to 4-3-3 with a lone, central frontman. So as a result, Ju Young Park was on the bench.
Perhaps the manager had tried to learn the lessons of Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat two seasons ago when he fielded the youngest side in Champions League. Perhaps he just wanted to retain his side’s recent momentum. Either way, it seemed the Wenger was not prepared to end an ultimately successful Group F campaign with a whimper.
But this evening did not go to plan.
The Olympiacos supporters are some of the most vociferous in European football and, in the first half, they willed their team into a winning position.
The football was played at a pace dictated by the home side. It was urgent, perhaps even rushed. But what the game lacked in finesse it would supplement with intensity.
The first quarter of an hour was even-handed.
With less than a minute gone, Kevin Mirallas escaped down the right and Modesto could not convert his low cross.
Then Andrey Arshavin exchanged passes with Chamakh for the Russian to scuttle through and blast a shut against the legs of keeper Balazs Megyeri.
Mirallas popped up on the other flank to flash a ball across the face of goal. But Santos soon reciprocated that effort with Chamakh just out of reach. The Moroccan then set up Emmanuel Frimpong to rifle a rising drive into the side-netting.
As the first quarter passed, it seemed that Arsenal seen off the early assault and could kick-on.
Then they went behind.
There was a touch of fortune about the goal. Sebastien Squillaci and Johan Djourou got in a tangle as they both went for Fuster’s through ball. It hit the legs of the Frenchman and then the Swiss before falling kindly for Djebbour, who rounded Fabianski to slot home.
The goal was injection of adrenaline for Olympiacos and their supporters – not that they needed one.
The latter roared the former forward for a second goal. Fabianski’s sliced clearance fell to Mirallas, whose chip drifted just past the post with the keeper furiously backtracking.
Within minutes, the Polish international would be stretchered off after a collision with Djebbour as the striker tried to convert another low cross from Mirallas. Mannone came on for his first Arsenal appearance since October 2009.
The visitors might have got on level terms when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s chip to the back post saw Benayoun volley wide. But, after the goal and the injury, Arsenal were still in the recovery position.
And they would receive another major blow in the 36th minute.
Mannone came out of his area to nod the ball clear. It fell to Fuster, who tried his luck from 30 yards out. The Italian could have gathered the ball as he now retreated to his area but, in the melee, he had not realised his position. The keeper went for the waist-high ball with his feet and miscued. It bounced meekly into the unguarded net.
It was all going wrong for Arsenal. The fast, uncompromising approach of Olympiacos had knocked them off their stride – literally at times.
But the home side had shown energy, ingenuity and desire too with the movement of Mirallas and Djebbour a constant problem. Three minutes from the break, the former crossed for the latter to head into the side-netting.
Arsenal went into the break thankful they were trailing by just the two goals.
It got no better after the restart. Within two minutes, Mannone saved low from Modesto then Olof Mellberg headed the resulting corner off the bar.
Before six minutes had elapsed, Santos hobbled off and Ignasi Miquel came on at left back.
Mirallas hit the side-netting and Modesto saw a shot deflected wide as Olympiacos threatened a third.
However, just before the hour, Arsenal would grab a goal. Miquel's cross was chested down by Chamakh and Benayoun arrowed an effort across the keeper and into the far corner.
Modesto captalised on hesitancy between Squillaci and Mannone to nod just wide shortly afterward. But the goal had taken the edge of Olympiacos.
For the first time, they were tentative.
Arsenal sensed a chance and started to explore their way forward. In the 74th minute they nearly equalised when Benayoun shovelled a pass into the path of the substitute Tomas Rosicky. His confident touch was plucked out of the air by Megyeri.
Despite their nerves, Olympiacos would recover. Djebbour nearly charged down a Mannone clearance seconds later and then Mirallas fired into the side-netting once more. Seven minutes from time they had claims for a penalty when Djebbour tried to convert during a goalmouth melee and the ball hit the hand of Vermaelen.
In the 89th minute, the home side got a killer third when a Mirallas free-kick was headed against the post by Mellberg and Modesto stabbed home the rebound from close range.
They celebrated as if they had qualified. In the end, they had not.
This was a disappointing night for both sides but, luckily, Arsenal can now look forward to the Knockout Stages.
Referee: Alberto Undiano Mallenco (ESP)
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