Monday 10 December 2018

Ozil too hot as Gunners freeze out Swedes

Ostersunds 0-3 Arsenal

David Ospina saves a late penalty from Tom Pettersson to ensure Arsenal’s clean sheet. Photo: Reuters
David Ospina saves a late penalty from Tom Pettersson to ensure Arsenal’s clean sheet. Photo: Reuters

Sam Dean

With bowed heads, chattering teeth and enough pairs of tights to stage their own production of 'Swan Lake', Arsenal's freezing players did not have the look of archetypal fairytale villains as they emerged into the night in Sweden's 'Winter City'.

They did, however, play the part to perfection. There was no sympathy for the romance of this Ostersunds FK journey, no consideration for their English manager, and no chance Arsene Wenger's side would be prevented from thawing out this two-legged tie in under an hour.

"We won in a comfortable way," said Wenger, who had made his intentions clear by naming a team that included Mesut Ozil for the first time in the Europa League. The competition has now been their likeliest route into the Champions League, so this was no occasion for needless risks, particularly in a city so cold that roads are pisted rather than built.

It was akin to parachuting the special forces into action, and the decision paid off. Ozil strutted and scored, adding a third to an early strike by Nacho Monreal and an own goal from Ostersunds defender Sotirios Papagiannopoulos.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Photo: Reuters

Only a late penalty awarded to the home side threatened to leave what Wenger said would have been a "bitter taste", but Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina, captain on the night, saved Tom Pettersson's weak effort.

At times, the Ostersunds players would have been forgiven for feeling a little starstruck. Graham Potter's disparate outfit, made up of misfits and rejects, have defied both logic and footballing convention to journey this deep into European competition. Three promotions and a Swedish Cup victory have set pulses racing in this isolated corner of Sweden, as have the squad's famous theatrical productions.

Potter, in short, has turned a sideshow into a passion. A team that did not even exist when Wenger took over as Arsenal manager has become an integral part of a city so tightly-knit that its population that would not even fill the Emirates Stadium.

None of this will be reversed by a thrashing at the hands of Arsenal's international stars and World Cup winners. But it will serve as a reality check as much as a footballing lesson.

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil celebrates scoring their third goal with Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal's Mesut Ozil celebrates scoring their third goal with Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Photo: Reuters

"We weren't ourselves," said Potter of his side's disappointing first-half performance. "We thought we could do a few things tactically, but we couldn't. It was a big occasion for the players in terms of nerves and excitement.


"The important thing is to put this into context. For Ostersunds to play Arsenal in the last 32 of the Europa League, and to have kids looking at the game and seeing world-class stars in this arena, is a sort of victory for us to celebrate."

Such was Arsenal's dominance that Shkrodran Mustafi, one of only two visiting players to have braved the conditions without gloves, had cooled down enough after 20 minutes that he had to request a pair from the Arsenal bench.

Potter had not disagreed with pre-match suggestions that the contrast in size between the two clubs had given the evening a flavour similar to an FA Cup third-round tie, although he did point out that most minnows would not have already beaten Galatasaray and Hertha Berlin in the competition.

For all that this was a fair point, and for all that Ostersunds deserved to be here, the contest had an unbalanced feel. Arsenal quickly set up camp not just in the Ostersunds half, but in the final third of it. Danny Welbeck headed wide in the first few minutes, while a panicked Ostersunds defence had twice played themselves into trouble before Monreal tapped in the opener following Alex Iwobi's blocked shot. The home side lost the ball cheaply in the build-up to Arsenal's second, which was bundled in by the unfortunate Papagiannopoulos after Henrikh Mkhitaryan had whipped a cross towards goal.

Ostersunds did at last push forward before half-time, with Saman Ghoddos twice drawing saves from Ospina before Ken Sema fired a free-kick on target.

That, though, was largely as good as it got until stoppage time. Arsenal turned down the heat in the second half, seemingly happy to control rather than probe. Still, there was enough momentum for Ozil to notch a third with a shot that trickled beneath home goalkeeper Aly Keita.

A glimmer of hope eventually presented itself for Potter's side as Arsenal full-back Hector Bellerin brought down Tesfaldet Tekie inside the penalty box at the death. Up stepped Ostersunds defender Pettersson, but his tame effort was easily saved by Ospina, allowing Arsenal to return home shivering but unscathed.

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