Thursday, August 28, 2014

Arsenal Scrap By Besiktas 1-0

Arsenal stood on the precipice of being eliminated before the Group Stage of the Champions League for the first time in 17 years, particularly after Mathieu Debuchy was sent off for a questionable second yellow in the 75th minute. An equalizer from Besiktas would have seen them through on the goal difference rule and they certainly came close several times throughout the game, including Demba Ba just missing a header as regulation time ticked away. It was the second game in this two-leg tie where a Gunner was sent off on a soft second yellow, but Besiktas might feel pretty aggrieved themselves, after an idiotic lunge from Jack Wilshere arguably clipped Ramon Motta in the back of the leg inside the box, in the first half. The penalty was waved off and Alexis Sanchez scored the only goal in over 180 minutes on the pitch between these two sides just before halftime, to secure passage through to the Group Stage and the windfall of 25 to 30 million pounds that will follow (essentially almost paying back his entire transfer fee).

It was a less-than-impressive performance from the Gunners, missing Arteta, Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey, but they hung tough with a Turkish side that seemed more apt to foul than take a shot and lasted almost 20 minutes a man down. In total, there were seven yellows and one red in the game and a number of other pummeling fouls that went unpunished (one could even make an argument for Debuchy being sent off for the first yellow). The problem for Arsenal, in the absence of Giroud, is having a focal point for attack. They certainly created enough chances, and Ox and Wilshere, in particular, were very dangerous when given space. But Sanchez was lucky to see a well-placed but relatively weak shot slot under the goalkeeper and the team was sometimes overrun by the physicality of Besiktas. The important thing is the win, just as was the case against Crystal Palace, and Wenger must feel lucky to have two wins and two draws given some pretty jaded performances, particularly in the first half of games. Some quick thoughts:

1. Jack Wilshere: while I still think Wilshere has to stay on his feet more and be more careful with the ball, he was dangerous in the final third and had a number of key passes in the game, almost scoring himself inside the first 15 minutes with a left-footed shot that went just wide of the goal. This was a redemptive performance for the Englishman who has been the source of endless consternation from pundits and, well, me for well over a year now. Let’s hope he can take some confidence from this performance and finally live up to all the hype.

2. Sanchez: Sanchez missed a great chance to seal the victory in the second half, but another relatively weak shot was blocked and the resulting corner went for nought. His first half goal is the reason Arsenal are through, though, and what a first goal to score for the team! He is a lively player with blistering pace and a physicality to his play that is often missing from the Gunners and I believe he will soon fit into the team well.

3. The Debuchy/Ox axis: Debuchy only arrived this summer and Ox was suffering through an injury in the preseason, on top of the one that derailed much of the previous season for him, but after only a couple of games together on the pitch, this duo is showing some great understanding and link-up play that should be giving headaches to Arsenal opponents throughout the season. With Ox’s emergence as such an impressive force, though, one wonders how much time Wilshere will actually see on the pitch once Walcott comes back and Arsenal, hopefully, buy a DM.

4. Defensive Frailty and Resilience: Arsenal could have easily lost today, if Besiktas took their chances. But they never made it easy for the Turkish side and held out with 10 men for almost twenty minutes. It was another show of resiliency from Mertesacker and Koscielny, who really are among the best duos around – absorbing pressure and getting the ball to the midfielders with acuity.

5. Transfer Needs: the loss of Giroud and Arteta to injury only amplify the necessity many believe Arsenal have had for two seasons running now – a quality striker to share time with Giroud and a defensive midfielder to shore up the space in front of the back four. Flamini showed again today why he is not the answer (though he did match up physically with the Turks) and Arteta has never been the force on defense we needed, playing more forward in the Everton system before his move to the Emirates; on top of the fact he is now a year older. Arsenal really need to splash some cash and bring in quality in those two positions, together with a fourth centre back (particularly as Chambers must also back up Debuchy who, if today is any indication, might spend some time on the sidelines after accumulating too many yellows or another red). A move for Carvalho might come tomorrow, having secured UCL Group Stage position, and then I would follow with a bid for United outcast Danny Welbeck, who could fit 
well into our system (my dream move would be to stump up the cash for Falcoa, who showed us what he can do in the Emirates Cup loss earlier in the month, or Cavani – though that seems highly unlikely with the Ibra injury). We lost out on Manolas to Roma, though I wonder if that had more to do with the chance to play every week, and must now scourge the world for a reasonable option (I might consider Agger from Liverpool, as he is agitating for a move). Wenger has but a few days to make something happen and better do so if this season is not to be derailed again by injuries (potential starters Gibbs, Sanogo, Arteta and Giroud are already out, a mere two weeks in).
The injury depleted Gunners head to upstart Leicester City Sunday and then face Man City at the Emirates on September 13, before an away match at an improved Aston Villa and the London Derby with Tottenham back home on the 27th. Without movement in the transfer window, I’m afraid the Gunners could be playing catchup after a mere six games. COYG!

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