Saturday, November 26, 2016

Arsenal Likely to Finish in Second in Group Yet Again After 2-2 Draw

Arsenal fell behind 1-0 to PSG in the first half, came back to take the lead in the second and then ceded it with a costly mistake from Iwobi. Now, given the strange rules of the UCL Group Stage, Arsenal is likely to finish second behind PSG, even as they have the same number of points and a superior goal difference. Three thoughts on the game:

1. Arsenal Falter on Biggest Stage Again: Arsenal are still undefeated since the opening day loss to Liverpool, a streak that has now extended to 18 games. And yet results over the past few weeks have stamped the momentum that inspired hopes of finally ending their title drought. Draws against Tottenham at home, a faltering United at Old Trafford and now PSG at home have tempered expectations among fans too used to second half disappointment. Against the top teams this season, Arsenal have lost to Liverpool, beaten Chelsea handily, drawn with both United and the Spurs and drawn twice with PSG.

In this game, Arsenal fell behind in the 18th minute, when Blaise Matuidi blazed down the left channel, beat Jenkinson and then Mustafi and then sent a perfect weighted pass to the hot Cavani, who finished with a toe poke in front of Koscielny. PSG were rampant and, but for a few near misses by the Uruguayan, who has made the number 9 his own in impressive fashion since Ibrahimovic jumped ship for United, could have put the game out of reach. Instead, Arsenal struck back on the cusp of halftime, with a clever reverse pass from Ozil finding Sanchez, who was clipped in the box. Giroud stepped up and added another goal to his recent streak, leveling things from the spot.

A fortuitous mistake by PSG’s Verratti in the 59th minute of a more even second half spell, sent the Gunners into a lead that would have guaranteed first place in the group. Arsenal began to sit back and a few quality chances presented themselves to Cavani, but he again fell short of expectation. That was until the 77th minute, when what looked like a harmless header from the left-hand side of a corner was steered by Iwobi past his own goalkeeper and into the back of the net.

Both teams poured the pressure on for the winner, with Wenger subbing in Walcott, Ox and Xhaka, but none was forthcoming and the Gunners had to settle for a draw that makes second place their likely finishing place in the group once again, even as they have gone undefeated in their first five fixtures.

Wenger must take a little of the blame for the result, again failing to give Xhaka the start he seems to deserve at this point. Instead Ramsey and Coquelin sat in front of the back four, unable to get the team out on the break with sufficient efficiency; the absence of Cazorla continuing to be felt acutely by the side. Giroud, Ozil and Sanchez played their part, though all three snubbed a couple of quality opportunities to get in on goal. And Iwobi’s development continues to be stunted slightly by his inability to keep his cool in and around either box. His defensive skills are not the reason he is on the pitch, but one must have the sense to not tip a ball when backwards is the most likely direction it will fly. On the offensive end, he still lacks the finishing touch and poise to pick out the right pass. Mustafi, a rock since his transfer, had an off game himself, partially complicit on both goals. But a point from behind should never be excoriated with too much vigor.

2. Familiar Script Repeating Itself? On the other hand, Arsenal have finished second in their group for five years now and, of course, gone out in the Round of 16 each of those years, plus one more the season before. Since their march to the Finals in 2006, the Gunners exploits in Europe have become all too familiar – a winnable group, a slip-up and then an earlier than expected exit. Even with the great squads of the late 90s and early 2000s, Wenger was never able to accomplish what the other top managers in the game generally do, winning at least one European Cup. Given the number of top teams who could find themselves in second place – including Bayern and Real Madrid – it might not be the worst year to finish second, but Barcelona could still await them in the first round of the knockout stage, or another team that will be favored. Another early exit in the Champions league could suit them this season, if they remain in the title hunt, but would be another mark against Wenger’s rather suspect record over the past decade plus.  

3. Signs of Steel Amidst the Recent Drop-off: While it is disappointing to drop points from the mouth of victory, as they have against PSG and Tottenham in recent weeks, it is important to remember that they were outplayed early and came back to take the lead after falling behind in this game. Against United last weekend, they scored late to equalize and against Ludogorets, they came back to win after being behind 2-0 in the first half. Other comeback points and victories have occurred this season, including the last second victory over Burnley, and their only loss almost saw an even more impressive turnaround back in August.

That sort of steel is what makes champions and while more of these draws need to be turned into victories, going 18 undefeated is nothing to scoff at, particularly when they were behind in several of these games. That they have gone on this run without the services of some of their top stars, from Cazorla and Bellerin recently to earlier stints on the sideline for Ramsey, Giroud and Coquelin (among others).

Now Arsenal have a run of winnable fixtures and need to take full advantage, building momentum for the second half of the season. They can afford to drop points to City, if they can take care of Bournemouth, West Ham, Stoke, a struggling Everton, West Brom and Crystal Palace to round out the year. They also have a tricky fixture against a tough Southampton in the Capital One Cup next week and a final UCL Group Stage game at FC Basel in early December. The future could still well be bright, if Arsenal can avoid the sort of midseason drop-off that has hurt them in the past.

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