By Richard Clarke at Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium
Arsenal completed their Champions League Group B campaign with a disappointing 2-1 defeat at Olympiacos on Tuesday night.
The result means Arsène Wenger’s side finish as runners-up in the table and, in theory, will face a tougher team in the knockout stages next February.
That was the only issue to be decided this evening. Group B had been sorted last time out – Arsenal and Schalke would go through, Olympiacos were in the Europa League, Montpellier were eliminated.
In order to take top spot, Wenger’s side had to win this evening and hope the Germans slipped up.
It looked likely for an hour. Until then the much-changed visitors were controlled and creative. Tomas Rosicky pulled the midfield strings delightfully and gave his side the lead seven minutes before the interval by finishing off Gervinho’s cut-back.
However Arsenal’s resistance broke in the 64th minute when Giannis Maniatis plundered a goal following a hotly-disputed corner. Shortly afterwards, substitute Kostas Mitroglou meandered home a second.
It was a tame end to a game that had, at one point, looked like being a valuable morale-booster. Still no matter, it is questionable whether finishing top gives a team much advantage in this season’s Champions League and those resting their limbs back in London will be relied upon in the domestic campaign over the intervening few months.
And that must be the focus now.
Wenger’s travelling squad and his pre-match comments had pretty much advertised his team. The experienced players started, the youngsters were on the bench.
The only exceptions were Jernade Meade at left back; a 20-year-old who had made his only previous Arsenal appearance at Reading in the Capital One Cup last month.
Meanwhile at the other end of the age spectrum, Andrey Arshavin, 31, was on the bench.
Only Wojciech Szczesny, Thomas Vermaelen, Carl Jenkinson and Gervinho were retained from Saturday’s defeat to Swansea. Sebastien Squillaci made his first start since the FA Cup win against Leeds in January. Meanwhile four of the squad had played in the NextGen game on this ground on September 12.
Like Arsenal, Olympiacos knew their Group B fate and, with a derby against Panathinaikos this weekend, Leonardo Jardim left out a couple of key players as well.
We were into the meat of the campaign but, given the situation, it felt a little end-of-season before kick-off. The Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium is normally rocking for Champions League games but it was not at capacity this evening.
Still, Arsenal started well. In the opening seconds Gervinho thumped an angled effort into the side-netting. Then the Ivorian combined nicely with Rosicky only for Francis Coquelin to drag his shot well wide.
Thomas Vermaelen’s outstretched leg stopped Rafik Djebbour stabbing home at the other end.
However Arsenal were showing the greater audacity going forward. Marouane Chamakh’s nod down bounced off Drissa Diakite for Aaron Ramsey but the Welshman miskicked when well-placed.
It was a fast, open game and there were chances at both ends. Vassilis Torosidis had a header booted away by Rosicky, then Djamel Abdoun and Djebbour saw efforts saved by Szczesny.
As we approached the half-hour, Olympiacos were starting to take a measure of control. Twisting trickery in midfield from Abdoun ended with an astute flick to Torosidis on the left of the area. The captain’s woeful finish was utterly incongruent with the build-up.
However the home side were not in the ascendancy for long, the work-rate of the Arsenal midfield would not allow that. And, in his first start of the season, the promptings of Rosicky took the eye.
Fittingly, the Czech international gave the visitors the lead in the 37th minute.
Ramsey released Gervinho on the right of the area. The Ivorian cut the ball back to the unmarked Rosicky 12 yards out and he buried his first Arsenal goal since their Champions League exit at home to Milan last March.
The goalscorer made way for Arshavin at the break. It smacked of a planned substitution.
The replacement headed over from Chamakh’s deep, hanging cross in the early stages. But, after that, Olympiacos started to press.
The impressive Abdoun flicked Ljubomir Fejsa through, who rippled the side-netting. David Fuster reddened the midriff of Szczesny with a shot immediately after coming on.
Arshavin’s fierce snap-shot was spectacularly turned aside by Roy Carroll.
But after Paulo Machado’s bobbling header bounced off the post, Olympiacos finally grabbed a goal.
Referee Alberto Mallenco gave a corner and, from it, Abdoun’s cross was nodded down on to the chest of Ramsey. It fell nicely for Maniatis to prod home at the near post.
The Arsenal players protested at the goal but it stood. For a couple of minutes they seemed to lose focus.
Squillaci gave away a free-kick 25 yards out and Machado’s low effort was well saved by Szczesny. Shortly afterwards, an unmarked Djebbour nodded wide of the far post from six yards out.
Olympiacos had deserved their equaliser but its manner had knocked Arsenal. The Greek champions grabbed a second in the 73rd minute when Mitroglou threaded a cross-shot into the far corner of the net.
It was hard on Arsenal who tried to rouse themselves towards the end. Arshavin went close and Squillaci nearly connected with a near-post corner from Oxalde-Chamberlain.
But Olympiacos had overpowered the visitors in the second half and they held on with some comfort until the final whistle.
Referee: Alberto Undiano Mallenco (ESP)
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