Result: Dundalk 2-4 Arsenal
Competition: Europa League
Date: 10 December 2020
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Arsenal: Runarsson, Chambers, Mustafi, Mari, Cedric, Willock, Elneny, Maitland-Niles, Smith Rowe, Pepe, Nketiah
Subs: Macey, Hein, Saka, Ceballos, Holding, Balogun, Cottrell, Azeez
Goals from Eddie Nketiah, Mo Elneny, Joe Willock and substitute Folarin Balogun helped Arsenal to a 4-2 win over Dundalk as the Gunners finished top of Europa League Group B with a 100 percent record.
Goals by Flores and Hoare twice halved our lead, but the gulf in quality between the two sides was evident throughout.
Mikel Arteta made a clean sweep of changes from the side that lost the North London derby but, perhaps surprisingly, given the opposition and the fact the match was the deadest of dead rubbers, the lineup was pretty strong. Of particular note were the inclusions of Calum Chambers and Pablo Mari – both made their comeback from injury last week – in a back three that also featured Shkodran Mustafi. Emile Smith Rowe came into midfield for his first start of the season to support Pepe and Eddie Nketiah. The bench featured three youngsters without a senior appearance – keeper Karl Hein, Ben Cottrell and Miguel Azeez – as well as exciting young striker Folarin Balogun, who scored against Molde.
On a muddy pitch torn up by a weekend of rugby, the Gunners made a sharp start against the newly-crowned FAI Cup winners. Inside four minutes, Pepe whipped a deep cross to Maitland-Niles who nearly found Nketiah with a header. Yep, an actual cross met by an Arsenal head. And not long after Pablo Mari stole the ball high up the pitch before feeding Nketiah who had a shot blocked.
The England under-21 international didn’t have to wait much longer to bag himself a goal. On 12 minutes he blocked an out pass on the edge of the Dundalk box and carefully dinked over the keeper from 12-yards out. (0-1) It was the furthest out he’s ever scored for the Gunners (@Orbinho).
Neither side had anything to play for and the game continued with a training ground rhythm of attack versus defence. After our well-documented struggles in front of goal, you sensed the players had been given a mandate to shoot on sight.
Mo Elneny did exactly that on 18 minutes. Picking the ball up 30-yards from goal, he hit a peach of an effort that was still rising as it found the top corner. The stadium may have been empty, but that didn’t stop him celebrating like he’d just buried a last-minute cup final winner. To be fair, it was a lovely strike, reminiscent of a Flamini strike against Newcastle back in 2008. (0-2)
At this point, the Gunners were completely dominant, so it was something of a surprise when the hosts halved our lead. Jordan Flores got behind our defence and flashed a shot past Runarsson. The ball seemed to be pretty near to the Icelander who’ll be wondering whether he should have done better. (1-2)
Cedric and Maitland-Niles both forced saves from keeper Gary Rogers as we looked to restore our two-goal advantage with more long shots things petered out towards the break.
In what would have been an embarrassing turn of events, the home side did come close to an equaliser with the final attack of the half. A cross from the right flank caused havoc in the Arsenal box and Chambers had to deflect a shot from Leahy over the bar.
Not a huge amount happened in the opening 15 minutes of the second period which may have informed Arteta’s decision to send on Dani Ceballos and Folarin Balogun. Our first half goal scorers made way.
As the dust settled on the changes, Cedric tried his luck with a free-kick that had Rogers scrambling to parry.
On the touchline, the boss continued to bark instructions eager for his players to up the tempo. They duly obliged, creating a couple of decent flowing moves that forced Dundalk onto the back foot.
Soon enough, we stretched our lead. Collecting a Cedric header, Balogun produced some fine hold-up play under pressure in the box before laying off for Willock who fired home through the keeper. (1-3)
Having excelled in the role of provider, Balogun burnished his credentials as a top-quality finisher by calmly slotting home his second goal of the Europa League campaign after Pepe played him in. (1-4)
Either side of the goal, fellow youngsters Ben Cottrell and Miguel Azeez made their senior debuts.
Dundalk, in their final game of the season, kept plugging away and were rewarded for their efforts when Hoare headed home from a free-kick. (2-4) Mustafi let his teammates know he was less than impressed by the marking as the defender found space between Pablo Mari and Azeez.
Calum Chambers thought he’d marked his first start in a year with a goal at the death. He flicked home at close range only to be flagged offside. He tried to barter with the Croatian officials but they weren’t having it. That meant we settled for 20 goals in six games; a very decent tally.
The draw for the last-32 takes place on Monday. Stiffer opponents await.