Sunday 19 August 2018

Walcott serves up double reminder

BATE Borisov 2 Arsenal 4

Olivier Giroud goes head and shoulders above the BATE Borisov defence in Minsk. Photo: Maxim Malinovsky/AFP/Getty Images
Olivier Giroud goes head and shoulders above the BATE Borisov defence in Minsk. Photo: Maxim Malinovsky/AFP/Getty Images

Tim Rich

A victory in an obscure corner of Europe in the group stages of the Europa League may not linger for very long but three Arsenal players will remember Borisov.

Olivier Giroud brought up his century of goals for Arsenal, Rob Holding scored his first and Theo Walcott might have had a hat-trick.

Victory over the perennial champions of Belarus entirely vindicated Arsene Wenger's decision to leave his major players in London. Cologne's defeat in Belgrade makes it likely both Arsenal and Red Star will qualify for the knockout phase with something to spare.

Steve Bould, who was sitting alongside Wenger in the Borisov Arena, would have recognised the make-up of the game from his own days playing reserve-team football in the old Central League.

This was an Arsenal team composed of young, keen footballers whose ages were in inverse proportion to their squad numbers and some old lags with a point to prove.

It is hard to imagine Walcott as an old lag but he is 28 and it is approaching six months since his last Premier League goal.

Arsenal's Edward Nketiah in action with BATE Borisov’s Dzmitry Baha. Photo: Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters
Arsenal's Edward Nketiah in action with BATE Borisov’s Dzmitry Baha. Photo: Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

By the interval, he might have had a hat-trick after a period in which Arsenal scored three times and hit the post twice. Belarus may be Europe's last dictatorship but its footballers could scarcely have made them more welcome.

Walcott was given considerable assistance by the Borisov keeper, Denis Scherbitski, and by Jack Wilshere, who dominated the midfield.

The game was barely a few minutes old when Wilshere's beautifully-measured pass between two defenders slipped Walcott through.

His shot struck the foot of the post, although if Borisov imagined that this was a night where luck would run with them, they were to be roundly disabused.

Arsenal's Per Mertesacker and Shkodran Mustafi in action with BATE Borisov’s Mikalay Signevich. Photo: Adam Holt/Action Images via Reuters
Arsenal's Per Mertesacker and Shkodran Mustafi in action with BATE Borisov’s Mikalay Signevich. Photo: Adam Holt/Action Images via Reuters

Inadequate

The champions of Belarus proved hopelessly inadequate at dealing with anything crossed into their area.

No fewer than four defenders might have cut out Wilshere's deep ball but, if Scherbitksi blocked Walcott's first header, he succeeded only in teeing the ball up for Walcott to stab elegantly home.

That Alexander Hleb, who played for Borisov in four separate spells, spent three years at the Emirates Stadium meant there are awful lot of Arsenal fans in this corner of eastern Europe.

Scherbitski describes himself as an Arsenal supporter, although the way the keeper passed the ball straight to Walcott on the edge of his own area was perhaps taking the allegience a little too far. Walcott took a couple of touches and clipped his shot home for his and Arsenal's second.

However, Scherbitski did make a fabulous, fingertip save to deny Walcott his third - a fig leaf for a dreadful display.

Giroud, who would have had a tap-in had Walcott passed theball to him, looked less than enthusiastic about the second goal.

A few minutes after the interval, the Frenchman was given a gift of his own when the referee noticed what must have been the slightest tug on Shkodran Mustafi's shirt by Stanislav Dragun and awarded a penalty as soft as a duck-feather eiderdown.

Giroud duly scored his 100th goal for Arsenal, joining a pantheon that includes Thierry Henry, Cliff Bastin and Robin van Persie.

It was a bit like a cricketer scoring his 100th hundred against Cambridge University; you would have hoped for something more memorable.

Given that the Polish official, Daniel Stefanski, had allowed Nemanja Milunovic's elbow into Joe Willock's face to go unpunished, it was strange refereeing.

It was also an evening of strange defending from both sides. No sooner had Holding shinned Per Mertesacker's flick-on into the net - the 22-year-old was to thump the ball against the BATE post before the break - than Borisov scored.

Marko Ivanic's header was a powerful one but a top-quality keeper, which is what David Ospina imagines himself to be, would have backed himself to save it.

There were all sorts of culprits for Borisov's second. Mertesacker was out of position, Holding slipped and Ospina could only parry Ivanic's shot, allowing Mikhail Gordeichuk to score a second.

There were 22 minutes remaining and, for Arsenal, they were often fractious, messy moments when the game suddenly looked more uncomfortable than it should have been.

Nonetheless, Wenger profesed himself pleased with the performance in which all of Arsenal's young players impressed to varying degrees.

Joe Willock, 18, was especially good in the centre of midfield, tidy in possession and happy to receive under pressure.

The wing-backs, Reiss Nelson on the right and Ainsley Maitland-Niles on the left, still have some work to do on the defensive side of their game. But certainly neither was overawed.

"We had good cohesion and played football like I want them to play, with a good pace," said Wenger.

"We maintained it for 65 minutes, and then the last 20 minutes were a bit more difficult."

Wenger had special words of praise for Wilshere, played as a sort of wide No 10.

"Jack is on his way back to his best," the manager said. "I just pray he is not hampered by any more injury problems and that will see him getting stronger and stronger.

"He's shown again that he's not lost his football. © Independent News Service.

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