Arsene Wenger’s 200th European game as a manager saw the Frenchman make nine changes from the team which beat Wigan. Only Thomas Vermaelen and Andre Santos kept their places as many of the big guns put their feet up back in London. What they watched in the first 45 minutes was something of a horror show.
Olympiakos raced out of the traps. Needing a win to stand a chance of qualification, they hunted in packs and cranked up the pressure on young trio Emmanuel Frimpong, Francis Coquelin and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain. The youngsters battled hard, but were hardly helped out by some lacklustre performances from their more experienced teammates.
Arshavin and Chamakh had a couple of chances, before Frimpong hit the side netting with a good-looking drive from the edge of the area. The home side though continued to press high up the pitch and eventually the constant harassing paid dividends.
Taking advantage of a defensive mix-up between Squillaci and Djourou, Olympiakos striker Djebbour pounced on a loose ball in the area, nipped around Fabianski and slotted home calmly. It didn’t get much better for the Gunners at the back.
A poor back pass by Vermaelen saw Fabianski forced into a rushed clearance which was immediately returned goalwards. Only the trajectory of the ball saved the Pole’s blushes. It got worse for the luckless goalkeeper. Involved in a collision in the box seconds later he was forced from the field of play with a knee injury and replaced by Vito Mannone.
Fabianski wasn’t the only one in the wars. Francis Coquelin did his best platoon impression after a clash of legs with an opponent. After quite some time rolling around like a fish out of water he finally returned to the midfield. It was something of an Eboue moment from the young Frenchman. That his teammates showed little concern despite the histrionics, suggested they’d seen it all before.
Inside ten minutes of coming on Mannone ended his Arsenal career. Frimpong lost the ball in midfield, the Italian came out of his area, bravely headed the ball clear only for David Fuster to shoot again. Rather than catch the bloody ball, which was pretty much straight at him, he seemed to try and ninja-kick it clear. He missed and watched the ball dribble into the net. It was so farcical I actually let out a little laugh. Not even an 8-year-old would have done it.
Despite being on top the Greeks didn’t slow up the pace of the game. While Frimpong and Coquelin battled, the lack of support from Benayoun, Arshavin and Chamakh meant the midfield were given few options when attempting to move up the pitch. The half-time whistle came as a welcome relief.
A minute after the re-start and a poor header by Santos allowed Olympiakos a chance to get a third, thankfully Mannone got down at his near post and got his body in the way. Olaf Mellberg clipped the bar from the resulting header before Santos went off with a knock and was replaced by Ignasi Miquel.
Out of the blue Yossi Benayoun got a goal back. A cross by Ignasi Miquel found Chamakh who chested it back to the Israeli who lashed home a volley. It was a lovely finish and with a glass of wine in me I coined this little ditty: “Boom, shake, shake, shake the room…Ben, Ben, Ben a Youuuuuun.” I’ll be collecting royalties on Saturday.
Mannone immediately freaked out at the prospect of Arsenal mounting a comeback and tried to give the Greeks another goal. In fairness to the Italian, Squillaci was hardly a calming influence in the box as a cross came in and the two of them left the ball for an advancing striker.
By the hour mark fatigue was starting to take its toll on the Olympiakos pressing game and the game slowed dramatically. Coquelin was replaced by Rosicky before a scrappy five minutes of lofted balls into the Arsenal box. Arsene looked very frustrated on the touchline.
Great interplay between Benayoun and the Czech substitute nearly resulted in an equaliser for the Gunners and with ten minutes to go you sensed an unlikely draw could be snatched despite an insipid display from Arshavin. Yes we were horribly open at the back, but Chamberlain looked determined to make something happen on his own and Vermaelen was rampaging forward like a bull.
Two minutes to go and that hope evaporated. After two silly fouls by Frimpong the ball was swung into the box, headed against Mannone’s post and the rebound bundled in. I’ve no idea who scored it – someone in red and white. We though were playing in blue.
Olympiakos thought at 3-1 they were going through in second place. Amazingly in Dortmund, Marseille were in the process of scoring twice in five minutes to battle back from 2-1 down to 3-2 up. The atmosphere in Greece died, the French champions joining the Gunners in the knockout stages as the referee blew the whistle.