On the day when Chelsea sacked yet another manager, and Manchester City were eliminated from the Champions League, Arsene Wenger provided supporters with a little reminder of what we have to be thankful for as he guided Arsenal to a 13th consecutive knockout stage qualification. There’s still the question of whether we will finish first or second in our group, but considering our past performances at Olympiakos (admittedly in meaningless fixtures), it’s reassuring to know that we’ll definitely be playing Champions League football come February.
Last night Arsenal vaguely built on the momentum created over the weekend by dispatching Montpelier 2-0. It was far from a marquee performance but featured a few notable moments. Lukas Podolski’s goal was a candidate for strike of the season. His sumptuous left-footed volley, from Giroud’s excellent lobbed pass, was past the keeper in a flash and in no way reminiscent of anything done by any player at Arsenal last season.
Podolski has come in for some criticism this season, but his goal-scoring tally is respectable and he was one of our best players on Wednesday night.
As brilliant as the German’s strike was, Jack Wilshere’s first goal in two years was probably more rewarding. It was great to see Jack get on the scoresheet and the manager was fulsome in his praise for Arsenal’s number 10 afterwards. With every match you can see him growing in confidence and his ability to cover the entire pitch is proving important as he helps protect an increasingly vulnerable, and possibly over-used, Mikel Arteta.
Two goals were enough to win us the match, but perhaps more importantly, and despite the occasional heart-in-mouth moment, Arsenal kept a clean sheet for the first time in ages. Szczesny did have to make one last-ditch intervention early in the first-half, and he arrived just in time to avoid giving away a penalty. As it turns out, having a competent keeper is an important part of preventing the opposition from scoring. Hopefully the Pole in the goal will now stay fit long enough to help restore our defensive record to some semblance of respectability.
Special recognition should also be given to Olivier Giroud. Early in the match it appeared that he was trying to do too much to impress against his former team. But as the game wore on, he began settle down and effectively played the role of target man. He assisted both goals, one quite spectacularly, and was only denied a well-deserved goal of his own, late in the match, by a quality save.
Giroud isn’t like any center forward Arsenal have had in recent memory. He’s not Thierry Henry or that Dutch bloke. He’s less effective when he comes deep to receive the ball, and he’s not going to beat anyone off the dribble. He doesn’t have the softest feet or a sprinter’s pace. For that reason I think it’s taken his new teammates time to adapt to him, as much as it’s taken him time to adapt to them. But now it seems we’re beginning to understand how to best utilize his abilities and that’s allowing him to have a greater impact than he did earlier in the season. It also gives Arsenal a much different look than we’ve had in the past and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Knockout stage qualification should be cause for celebration. However, some supporters have grown bored with the competition. They maintain that the Champions League is an exercise in futility for Arsenal and prefer that we focus on domestic competitions. I couldn’t disagree more. If nothing else, our progression in Europe guarantees that we will see Arsenal play at least two more matches this season. And isn’t that what supporting Arsenal is all about? You know… Watching Arsenal play football?
The big eared trophy’s elusiveness can frustrate, but it’s allure is undeniable. And while some supporters will complain that it’s a competition we are ill-equipped to win, I’d argue that winning isn’t all that matters. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t drunk the “qualification is a trophy” Kool-Aid, but some of my favorite recent Arsenal memories have come in the knockout stages of the Champions League. Even those ties where we were ultimately eliminated, like Barcelona two seasons ago and AC Milan last season, treated us to Arsenal performances for the ages. And there’s nothing wrong with celebrating those occasions even though they didn’t come with trophies.
The biggest clubs in Europe have found consistency in the Champions League is not so easy to come by. Just ask United and City last season. Or City and most likely Chelsea this season. But for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger, lucky number 13 is just business as usual.
Not so long ago Ivan Gazidis opined that Manchester City were envious of Arsenal’s position. He made that observation last season around this time, after City had been eliminated from the Champions League at the group stage.
“We’re in three competitions this year… Manchester City would love to be in three competitions. They’re not, so money is not everything in this game.”
While there are many that would argue with Gazidis’ conclusion, at least on this day, his words ring true again.
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- paucisverbis said: We Gooners still want a trophy/cup or two along with the success in the CL. Is that too much to ask?
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