Thursday 8 December 2016

Greek tragedy leaves Gunners facing early exit

Sam Wallace

Published 30/09/2015 | 02:30

Alex Oxlade Chamberlain is down and almost out at the end of last night's match
Alex Oxlade Chamberlain is down and almost out at the end of last night's match

The clocks have not yet gone back this autumn and already there is a mood of Wenger-rage rumbling around the Emirates Stadium, the age-old recriminations of a home support that feels it has seen this story too many times before, and knows exactly how it will end.

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There have been bad defeats in the Champions League in the past, but few at home for Arsène Wenger as damaging as this one to a club who have beaten Arsenal before but never at the Emirates.

Arsenal have long since slipped behind the elite in European football but by their standards they are struggling at an embarrassingly early stage of the competition.

Two games in and it would be no exaggeration to say the alarm has already been sounded given that Arsenal have lost both their opening matches and now face back-to-back games against Bayern Munich, currently crushing everything in their way.

The German champions beat Dinamo Zagreb 5-0 last night and, if Arsenal fail to take some points from Bayern, then they may not get out of the group.

It is remarkable that it has come to this for Wenger in the penultimate year of his contract.

However, he has to take much of the blame for another risky selection of David Ospina in place of Petr Cech - a decision that cost his side the second Olympiakos goal.

That was a disastrous error by the Colombian goalkeeper and, although Arsenal equalised through Alexis Sanchez, they capitulated immediately and conceded a third. This is supposed to be a sophisticated Arsenal team but for long periods of the game they found themselves well managed by Olympiakos who took advantage in set-pieces and then on the counter-attack.

The great Argentinian midfielder Esteban Cambiasso was a major influence on the game and Arsenal, desperately shifting their formation to chase the game, looked disjointed by comparison.

Wenger's team started at half the pace of a side who needed a win in their first home game of the Champions League and the opportunity for a strong start passed them by.

Their best moments in the early stages were on the counter-attack, with a front three of Theo Walcott, Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain capable of out-running an Olympiakos side that committed to the attack.

The team from Greece were compact when they were out of possession but they did get significant numbers forward when they sniffed a chance.

Finish

It meant that on 10 minutes, and then again soon after, they were opened up by Sanchez who played in Oxlade-Chamberlain and then Walcott. Neither could finish the job.

After that, Olympiakos tightened up and tried to stay focused as their opponents attempted to weave a way through from the edge of the area.

These are the serial Greek champions with 17 titles in the past 19 seasons of their nation's Super League.

They have won five games out of five in their league this season and, although they lack the high quality of some of Arsenal's squad, they made the most of their set-pieces.

The first Olympiakos goal was a very skilfully worked corner that found the Colombian winger Felipe Pardo on the edge of the area where he hit his right-foot shot first time. Oxlade-Chamberlain turned away, critically, and the ball clipped his heel and wrong-footed Ospina.

It would get worse for the goalkeeper.

First came Arsenal's equaliser within minutes of the Olympiakos goal. Sanchez worked the ball past two opponents on the left side and played in Walcott who allowed the ball to run across him and angled his body to take his shot on his right foot.

With the momentum behind them, it was set for Arsenal to take advantage but then came Ospina's moment of catastrophe.

A corner from Kostas Fortounis, right-footed from the left side, caught him in two minds and the Arsenal goalkeeper failed to take it mid-air. Instead, he landed back in his goal and brought the ball down and backwards with him - and over the line.

It was a tight decision and with no goal-line technology in the Champions League, it became the call of the Dutch additional assistant referee on the goal-line.

He got it right and judged that the ball had crossed the line. For Ospina, and for Wenger, it was a dreadful moment.

The Arsenal manager rates his Colombian goalkeeper highly and, with that old dogged loyalty that Wenger has displayed over the years, he feels duty-bound to play him in spite of Cech's obvious superiority.

A steep price had been paid for that and Wenger's players were on the back foot again.

Yet even that could not have prepared the home fans for the agony that was to follow.

They started the second half with a point to prove and Santi Cazorla had a good shot headed off the line by Omar Elabdellaoui.

The equaliser, on 65 minutes, was a fine move that sent Walcott down the right and he picked out Sanchez to head the ball in.

By then Arsenal had lost Laurent Koscielny to what looked like a hamstring strain and Per Mertesacker was on in his place.

Nevertheless, nothing could explain the shambolic defending that followed the Arsenal equaliser which allowed Olympiakos to take the lead with their third goal of the night.

With a defence that was wide open, and one shot blocked already, Cambiasso worked the ball wide to Pardo who crossed for the half-time substitute, Alfred Finnbogason, an Icelandic striker. He got a subtle touch on the ball to steer it well beyond Ospina and into the far corner.

Wenger sent on Aaron Ramsey before the hour and his influence had an effect, but ultimately Arsenal needed a moment of brilliance from Sanchez or Cazorla to save the draw and it never came.

At the final whistle, the home crowd erupted with boos.

They qualify for this competition every year, as Wenger never tires of saying, but at this rate they will be out before Christmas.

Bayern come to north London on October 20 - a daunting challenge for a team that looks short of confidence.

First up here are Manchester United on Sunday, against whom things can get much worse for Wenger before they get better. (© Independent News Service)

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