Arsenal 2 Olympiakos 0: Van delivers late for Gunners
THE impression that the Champions League group stage will be a formality for Arsenal this season continues after Tuesday night s hard-earned but dominant victory over a stubborn Olympiakos. While the six points the Gunners have gleaned from their two
THE impression that the Champions League group stage will be a formality for Arsenal this season continues after Tuesday night's hard-earned but dominant victory over a stubborn Olympiakos.
While the six points the Gunners have gleaned from their two group games so far have been scrappily won, they are now in command of Group H and can already smell the knockout stages.
A double Dutch test against AZ Alkmaar, starting in Holland on October 20, could provide them with the opportunity to reach the last 16 with two games to spare.
And while Arsene Wenger was not complacent after goals from Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin in the final 12 minutes had finally ended the Greeks' resistance� he knows deep down that this is a group Arsenal simply cannot fail to qualify from.
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"I knew it was important not to make a mistake and hope they died physically in the last 20 minutes and that was what happened," said the Gunners boss afterwards.
"We were outstanding in the first half but could not take advantage, and then in the second half we also dropped physically and we were playing against a side with 10 men beind the ball all the time.
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"Olympiakos have played in the Champions League for the last 10 years so they have quality, and if you look at the other results around you see no games are easy in Europe any more."
That was in reference to Liverpool's shock defeat in Florence and Serie A champions Inter Milan's failure to beat Russian debutants Rubin Kazan.
However, Group H does not seem to have the capacity for such upsets, even though Olympiakos, well-drilled by their new manager, the Brazilian legend Zico, will not be an easy team to face over in Athens in the final group game in December.
Arsenal will expect to have sealed qualification by then, even if at times Tuesday's performance bore hallmarks of the lapses in concentration that had seen the group opener in Belgium two weeks earlier won so narrowly against Standard Liege.
Wenger made two changes from the side that had beaten Fulham on Saturday, with Emmanuel Eboue coming in for Bacary Sagna at right-back, and Tomas Rosicky getting the nod to replace Nicklas Bendtner, still shaken by his car crash on Sunday.
It always looked like being a busy night for the visitors' veteran keeper Antonis Nikopolidis, the grey-haired custodian who had confounded all of Europe by helping Greece to the Euro 2004 crown so memorably in Portugal five years ago.
In the opening 20 minutes alone the 37-year-old kept out two efforts from Arshavin, and one from Rosicky after Cesc Fabregas's shot had come back off the crossbar.
It was the way the match was to continue, barring two incidents either side of half time when the Greeks could have taken a shock lead, with Vito Mannone continuing his excellent form from Saturday with an instinctive save from former Aston Villa defender Olof Mellberg's header.
Van Persie was thwarted twice more by Nikopolidis and the frustration was starting to show, the Dutchman cautioned for a wild lunge on Polish defender Michal Zewiakow.
The Emirates crowd were also starting to show their frustration, but Wenger responded by replacing Rosicky with Eduardo, and then Abou Diaby - also twice denied by Nikopolidis - with Carlos Vela, and what was virtually a 4-2-4 formation for the final 15 minutes finally unlocked the door.
As at Fulham on Saturday when the goal came it was exquisitely worked, Fabregas releasing Eduardo inside the left channel, and Van Persie arriving in the six-yard box to sweep home the Croatian's low centre.
The Emirates breathed a collective sigh of relief and the fans were given a memorable send-off when Arshavin added a second, although the Russian did look offside when he cheekily back-heeled home a Fabregas cross after good work from another substitute, Aaron Ramsey.
The goals may have come late, but the scoreline did certainly not flatter Arsenal and Wenger felt that patience was the key element on the night.
"I always felt that over 90 minutes they would struggle to keep their concentration and focus," added Wenger. "We played 4-2-4 at the end and you have taken a gamble and can be caught, but Eduardo is a super player and I am glad I put him on the bench because he was close to not playing."
The job was done though, and qualifying now looks a simple task for Wenger's side, although it is the knockout stages that will bring greater challenges than those offered by the likes of Olympiakos.
On the eve of the game Wenger admitted that losing last season's semi-final to Manchester United was the most painful defeat of his 13-year reign at Arsenal. He would like a chance to put that right this season - the Gunners already look to be on track to reach the latter stages once more.