Arsenal v Olympiakos

New stars lift Gunners from gloom

October 3, 2012
By John Brewin, Emirates Stadium
(Archive)

After the misery of Saturday lunchtime, a midweek win achieved with something in hand was just what Arsene Wenger would have ordered. Almost a year to the day, on Matchday 2 in 2011, Olympiakos were beaten 2-1 by an Arsenal team wracked by nerves as they attempted to recover from a train wreck of an opening month of the season.

Aaron Ramsey
PA PhotosAaron Ramsey celebrates after rounding off the victory

This time, it may have been the last kick of the game when Aaron Ramsey sauntered through to make it 3-1, but Arsenal had looked comfortable for some time. It had not been a display of vintage Arsenal, and such a thing would seem to lie some years in the past, but it had been more than enough.

Wenger, still banished to the stands by UEFA for last season's transgression against Milan, will have felt some nerves, especially during the first half, and some anger at the concession of another goal to a crossed ball, this time in open play, but, with two wins from two matches in Group B, his exile has not affected results at all. Indeed, this time last year, against the same opposition, he was similarly placed in solitary.

Back then it was Pat Rice manning the touchline and speaking to the media. This time, it was Steve Bould who was able to offer words of congratulations and encouragement about Arsenal's players. "I think it knocked our confidence a little bit getting beat," the new assistant manager said of the weekend blues. "We got back on track. We've done great though without being fantastic."

Arsenal's problems in recent seasons have meant that a morale-crushing defeat like that against Chelsea at the weekend has a knock-on effect for a run of games afterwards. Wenger had looked crestfallen on Saturday, his face betraying a fear of the same old story being read out again about his team. Such dark moods might be behind Arsenal's repeated rollovers of poor results, but Olympiakos were simply not strong enough to stop the Gunners lifting spirits ahead of another London derby, this time at West Ham on Sunday.

Another familiar but happier story for the Gunners is their serial qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League. Even if this competition has often been cruel to them beyond this section of the competition, Arsenal have had the measure of the group stages since 1999. As Manchester City are finding, that is no mean feat.

At a club where hopes of glory are tempered by bitter experience of repeated failure, Santi Cazorla could be a player to cure ills and lift the mood. Arsenal fans have always loved a creative talent. Even in the pre-Wenger era, the likes of Liam Brady, Anders Limpar and Bruce Rioch-era Dennis Bergkamp were cherished.

It took a year to replace Samir Nasri, but Cazorla looks of equal class. His neat control and low centre of gravity are a little reminiscent of the Frenchman, though he is yet to look as decent a finisher as his predecessor. A second-half slash wide reminded of a similar skew against Chelsea but Arsenal fans will forgive him if he keeps supplying them with the slaloming runs that had a quiet crowd off its feet on a number of occasions.

They would hope to be able to enjoy his talents for a while yet. At 27, Cazorla might just be a little bit old for Manchester City to steal in and pinch for their 'project'. Such signings might be the way for Wenger to retain a nucleus. Mikel Arteta, older still at 30, has been a similarly excellent addition in his year with the club and now looks like his team's fulcrum. Many would point to him being the club's natural captain, even though he does not wear the armband.

Olympiakos' Kostas Mitroglou scores the equaliser against Arsenal
APOlympiakos' Kostas Mitroglou scores the equaliser against Arsenal

It is leadership that has lain at the heart of Arsenal's problems for some years now. The choice of Thomas Vermaelen as club captain is curious since many observers believe that the combination of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny is the best at Wenger's disposal. The German is certainly better in the air than the Belgian, who was culpable when Leandro Greco crossed for Kostas Mitroglou to head Olympiakos' equaliser. The German's absence was not a matter of selection, since he had called in sick with a virus earlier in the day, but he will be required when facing West Ham and the aerial bombardment that will no doubt be aimed at Andy Carroll at Upton Park.

"We're all good players," Bould offered. "In these days of rotation there's no need to say who's the best player."

Of course, and talking of captains, there is the prickly question of replacing another émigré to the North West - the Dutchman whose name is no longer mentioned among Arsenal's marble halls now that he is scoring goals for fun at Manchester United.

Wenger will have been pleased with two answers supplied here. At the beginning of the season, when Arsenal looked to be scrambling for options, few would have believed that Gervinho would have led the scoring charts, but the Ivorian, who had seemed like no-one's idea of a deadly finisher, has now posted two pearling finishes in two outings. The turn and pirouette against Chelsea was followed by a long-range effort of venom and direction to open the scoring against the Greeks.

Lukas Podolski often alternated a free role with Gervinho, with one drifting while the other led the line. It meant that Podolski spent much of the first half wandering without actually touching the ball at all. The second half saw Herr Podolski open his Champions League account with a cut in and finish. Its progress into the back of the net owed much to slack goalkeeping from 'keeper Balazs Megyeri but Wenger will be happy that the German is scoring regularly. Steve Bould certainly was. "He's a fantastic finisher."

Olivier Giroud, still yet to convince he can be a prolific scorer for the Gunners, had also pitched in with two assists after coming on as a second-half sub. Three new boys in Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud had played their part in victory while Gervinho, in a new role, had also flourished.

Such positives signs were there to be drawn, and a gloom had been lifted. A night of relative comfort can quell talk of another crashing decline.