Result: Olympiacos 0-1 Arsenal
Competition: Europa League
Date: 20 February 2020
Venue: Karaiskakis Stadium
Arsenal: Leno, Sokratis, Mustafi, Luiz, Saka, Xhaka, Guendouzi, Willock, Martinelli, Aubameyang, Lacazette
Subs: Martinez, Maitland-Niles, Holding, Kolasinac, Ceballos, Pepe, Nketiah
Alex Lacazette’s late goal was enough for Arsenal to overcome Olympiacos in a scrappy encounter in Athens. The Frenchman tapped home Bukayo Saka’s low cross with nine minutes remaining to put us in pole position to qualify for the Europa League last-16. The win also stretches our unbeaten run to nine games in 2020.
Mikel Arteta’s first European game as a coach saw him make five changes to the team that started against Newcastle. With his wife expecting a baby, Mesut Ozil stayed in London. As did, Lucas Torreira who was ill. That made room for Joe Willock and Matteo Guendouzi to start in midfield. Sokratis came in for Hector Bellerin at right-back, while Lacazette and Martinelli replaced Nketiah and Pepe respectively. The latter pair took up a place on the bench. Interestingly, the boss opted not to field Emi Martinez in goal. That Bernd Leno retained his place suggests an end to the cup competition keeper rotation favoured by Arsene Wenger and Unai Emery.
With the home fans baying for blood from the stands an hour before kick-off, the hosts were always going to go hell for leather from the off. We were immediately on the back foot and lucky not to concede twice in the first five minutes.
Leno made a great stop down low to his left to parry Valbuena’s volley away from danger and a header at close range from Masouras went just over.
The opening stages were played at a frenetic pace but bit by bit we gradually started to exert our game. Aubameyang playing on the right of attack played a teasing cross that was just out of reach of Lacazette. Soon after, a deft backheel by Martinelli came close to freeing Auba. But not quite.
When a shot did come, Lacazette should have done better. The Frenchman had tried to play in Martinelli initially only to overhit his pass. The Brazilian was forced to spin on a sixpence, rolled the ball back to Laca and the net should have bulged. His effort flashed wide.
Leno did well to prevent a Luiz own goal when the centre-back slid to cut out a cross but that was a rare foray forward by the Greeks as we controlled things in the midfield.
Saka was a nice outlet on the left even though he grew frustrated by his own lack of end product. Lacazette shared a few words of encouragement with the youngster. Joe Willock was also a lively presence, often wriggling away from challenges to kick-start a push forward.
While we controlled things, further clear cut chances were not forthcoming. A Xhaka free-kick, won by Willock, briefly panicked keeper Sa when it took a nick off Martinelli and. just before the break, Lacazette had a speculative effort deflected over at close quarters.
Sloppiness was prevalent from both sides as the second half desperately tried to splutter into life. Early on, Lacazette went over in the box looking for a penalty when he should have shot and Luiz fired a free-kick wide that never looked like troubling the keeper.
At the other end, Mustafi put us in trouble with a lax played out from the back. Luckily the Greeks squandered the opportunity to do something meaningful with our defence at sixes and sevens.
Just before the hour mark, Arteta decided to mix things up. Martinelli, who had been pretty quiet, made way for Ceballos and he took up the number 10 position with Willock moving to the left.
Lacazette’s underwhelming evening continued. A header from a Xhaka cross went wide, even when an Olympiacos arm diverted it closer to goal, and he failed to pick out Aubameyang having been played in behind the defence.
An offside flag would have denied Ba a goal had his header on 72 minutes made it pass Leno. The German didn’t know that though and made a great save. He was called into action four minutes later to stop a long-range free-kick that skipped off the turf just in front of him.
With 15 minutes remaining Pepe replaced Willock. The Ivorian went to the right, Auba came left. Not much changed. If anything we got worse. We really struggled to keep the ball and in response, the Greeks pushed forward and the noise grew louder. Leno was composed between the sticks, punching clear whenever the opportunity arose.
Out of nothing, we bagged a precious away goal. Aubameyang did brilliantly to collect a long diagonal ball on the left flank and with Saka making an overlapping run, he quickly played in the 18-year-old. Unlike in the first half, the left-back kept his head to play a fine ball across the box for Lacazette to tap home. Two in two for the Frenchman who up to that point had endured a very frustrating evening. (1-0)
We really should have buried the tie after that. Keeper Sa denied Lacazette a second, Sokratis hit the bar with a thumping header and Mustafi couldn’t get the rebound on target. Still, a clean sheet and win on the road aren’t to be sniffed at. The Greeks visit the Emirates in a week’s time. Before that we face Everton on Sunday.