With Napoli and Dortmund to come, a win against the weakest side in the group was the minimum requirement tonight and Wenger’s boys achieved that with a solid, if unspectacular performance.
It wasn’t easy viewing to start with though as Marseille had the better of the opening half, settling down well and dominating possession. They had a few half chances but didn’t really threaten Szczesny, while at the other end Arsenal’s intricate passing moves were snuffed out by the two central defensive midfielders Marseille positioned in front of their back four. A half to remember it wasn’t.
There was a spring in the step of the Arsenal players after the break though and Gibbs nearly opened the scoring when a delightful back heel from Ozil gave him a sight of goal, only for the keeper to block the shot. Then Mertesacker had a ‘mare when he sliced the ball over Szczesny’s head and Gibbs did brilliantly to get back and head off the line. The match was delicately balanced and chances were finally coming as both sides went for the three points.Crucially it was Arsenal who made the breakthrough on 65 minutes when a poor clearance sat up nicely for Walcott to lash home an excellent volley. The spirit visibly drained from Marseille and Arsenal were looking comfortable.
With six minutes to go Ramsey burst past a couple of tired challenges and fired home a deflected shot which left the keeper no chance. When you’re hot, you’re hot and Ramsey’s current vein of form means even the deflections are going his way. Long may it continue for the lad, who’s had a tough time from short-sighted fans over the last couple of years but is now looking like the pre-Shawcross midfield dynamo we were all so excited about.
He almost ruined his evening by losing concentration and giving away a poor penalty in injury time, but even though Ayew scored the ref blew the final whistle almost immediately after the restart and Arsenal had a vital opening day win.
This Marseille team was much better than the one we played two years ago and an away win in the Champions League is worthy of praise whoever the opponent. But the match highlighted concerns for me too — there were periods where we were sloppy and being outclassed by a side who have little hope of getting out of the group, let alone winning the tournament, and until they opened up to go for the win we couldn’t find a way through them.
More worryingly, our players looked tired already which is unsurprising as we’ve had no chance to give them a rest thanks to injuries and a thin squad which is far too small. There was one moment midway through the second half when Ozil played Wilshere in on the edge of the box and the lad was too knackered to take it in his stride, eventually forced to come backwards before being harried out of possession. I’m really concerned that Wenger will run Wilshere into the ground again and we desperately need some midfielders fit again soon.
All in all a good night though. I hardly think our Champions League odds will have shortened (you can check the latest prices at http://sports.williamhill.com/bet/en-ie/betting/y/5/Football.html) but we are set up nicely for the visit of Napoli in a fortnight. Before that we have the Stoke neanderthals to deal with, so thank goodness we have an extra day’s rest before Sunday’s encounter.