Wednesday 24 July 2019

Solid Gunners do enough but fail to hit high notes again

Arsenal 3 BATE Borisov 0

Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has his shot blocked by BATE Borisov’s Stanislav Dragun at the Emirates last night. Photo: Getty Images
Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has his shot blocked by BATE Borisov’s Stanislav Dragun at the Emirates last night. Photo: Getty Images

Jonathan Liew

After a fraught and irritable week, a catharsis of sorts for Arsenal.

In an ideal world they would have laid waste to their limited Belarusian opponents, put six or seven goals past them, scorched the Emirates turf with such devastating penetration and breathtaking beauty that the rest of Europe would have no choice but to sit up and take notice.

Arsenal's Sokratis Papastathopoulos celebrates scoring his side's third goal with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal's Sokratis Papastathopoulos celebrates scoring his side's third goal with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Photo: Reuters

As it turned out, this wasn't that. It was enough. It was fine. An ellipsis of a game, neither answering any questions nor posing any new ones, but simply prolonging Arsenal's Europa League campaign for another few weeks without raising the slightest hope that they might win it.

Settled

An early own goal settled the nerves, Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos made the tie safe either side of half-time, and for all of Unai Emery's wildly exuberant celebrations on the touchline, nobody was reading much more into it than that.

Still, until the big victories come along, Arsenal will take the little ones.

Arsenal's Nacho Monreal and FC BATE Borisov's Nemanja Milic battle for the ball. Photo: PA
Arsenal's Nacho Monreal and FC BATE Borisov's Nemanja Milic battle for the ball. Photo: PA

If nobody truly excelled, then nobody really disgraced themselves either, although a second-half injury to Laurent Koscielny - possibly a recurrence of his Achilles complaint from last year - will be a concern.

There were some late minutes for Denis Suarez, a morale-boosting clean sheet, and an encouraging return for Mesut Ozil.

Ozil wasn't decisive, but then when was that ever the point of him? In an occasionally frenetic game, open and direct in the first half before slowing up in the second, as BATE's lack of match practice began to tell, Ozil offered his usual unspectacular greasing of the wheels.

He had a couple of shots, one which went roughly in the right direction and one which did not.

Arsenal manager Unai Emery. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal manager Unai Emery. Photo: Reuters

He looked as likely as any of his team-mates to create anything. Like the club as a whole, this was a night when you suspect Ozil was simply grateful to get back out there.

That urgency certainly seemed to contribute to Arsenal's lightning start, one that could quite plausibly have seen them score three or four goals in the opening 10 minutes.

By the time Zakhar Volkov's own goal put them ahead in the fourth minute, Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan had already enjoyed a sight of goal. Arsenal looked sharp and impatient. A trouncing appeared to be on the cards.

Except BATE then did what they do so well: they countered.

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal's Mesut Ozil. Photo: Reuters

They might not have a great deal of guile to them, but they're brave and quick and they have one hell of a counter-attack.

From one, Maksim Skavysh got clear and shot into the side-netting. From another, Stephan Lichtsteiner cleared Stanislav Dragun's shot off the line.

BATE were surging forward with abandon, tackling with a gusto that verged on the illegal, and for a while Arsenal momentarily seemed to lose themselves in abortive through balls and inconsequential passing rounds.

In the circumstances, Mustafi's header from Granit Xhaka's corner seven minutes before the break was emphatic, Emery's celebration ecstatic.

A full 128 minutes into the tie, Arsenal led for the first time.

That should have relaxed Arsenal a little, but instead it seemed to tighten them further, even after BATE's goalkeeper Denis Scherbitski came for a cross, didn't get it, and Sokratis firmly nodded it in with only his second touch of the game.

The promised deluge never came: the visitors had too much pride and resilience to allow it, and even as they cemented their passage to the last 16, Arsenal offered little but extreme competence. It was a solid and effective display, particularly after the humbling in Barysaw. It was enough, but as ever with Arsenal over recent years, it was barely more than that.

© Independent News Service

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