Friday 23 March 2018

'Nervous' Wenger avoids ambush as Gunners look to do-or-die outing in Greece

Arsenal 3-1 Sunderland

Gunners boost: Aaron Ramsey
Gunners boost: Aaron Ramsey
Olivier Giroud celebrates scoring Arsenal's second with Aaron Ramsey

Jim White

From a distance, this may seem just the result Arsenal needed as they set off to Greece.

After failing to win in three previous Premier League games, victory was vital, not just to propel a title challenge, but to lift the spirits of players and fans ahead of a crunch Champions League tie with Olympiakos on Wednesday.

This being Arsenal, however, three points somehow never count as enough. Style matters. The manner of this win against a drilled and organised Sunderland - scratchy, lacklustre, more than a little dependent on their opponents' abject finishing - clearly had a draining effect on the Arsenal manager.

For almost 90 minutes, Arsene Wenger was on the edge of his technical area, constantly sniping at the fourth official.

"I was very nervous today because I knew that for the team it was a very important game and for our season as well," Wenger admitted.

"If we don't win, people question. I knew it was a very important moment for the team."

Indeed, for Wenger, the moment could not be more significant. His run of qualifying for the knockout stage of the Champions League has for years been the principal building block in any defence of his record at the club.

Never mind that he has never actually lifted the trophy, for him 16 years of successive arrival at the business end of Europe's premier competition is a crucial indicator of success.

"It means a lot to me because it is important for the club and the players," he said.

Only a comprehensive victory - by two clear goals, or a single-goal with a score of 3-2 or greater - against the Greek champions in their own stadium will maintain the record.

Any other result and the Europa League beckons.

For much of the opening exchanges, the injury-hit home side were slow and jittery.

Joel Campbell, whose place in the starting line-up was a function of the lengthening injury list at the Emirates, demonstrated precisely how to finish with a smart opener.

Even then, Sunderland were not out of it. The award of a free-kick which sent Wenger into temporary apoplexy, resulted in an equaliser, Olivier Giroud turning the ball into his own net while under no apparent pressure .

After his superb can-opener of a pass had set up Campbell for the opener, Mesut Ozil gave a masterclass in calm, measured midfield play.

When Giroud made amends for his haplessness with a smart finish, Ozil was central to the move.

Even when they had assumed ascendancy, though, Arsenal never looked in control and Sunderland full-back Patrick van Aanholt failed to put away a fine chance.

Aaron Ramsey's late third put an unearned gloss on proceedings.

With Santi Cazorla out until March at the earliest, Ramsey's return to goalscoring form was very welcome for Wenger.

In Cazorla's absence, Ramsey returned to a more central role and, while he showed signs of rust in his second start after more than a month out, his nose for goal remains keen.

The Welshman continually found himself in dangerous positions and, after several misses, was finally rewarded with a close-range poacher's goal in injury time.

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