Arsenal lost this game of two halves, fielding a second half side of back-up players who performed so poorly that a huge question mark hangs over whether we have enough strength in depth to finish in the top four, never mind actually mount a title challenge.
Wenger started with his best available side considering we were missing Nasri, Cesc, Wilshere, Koscielny and Walcott. Benfica however made seven changes from their Champions League qualifier line-up of three days previously, so this was a pretty under-strength Benfica side as well.
We started brightly and Arshavin in particular looked up for the game, doing more running and tracking back in the first 20 minutes than he did in the first 20 games of last season. On seven minutes he got into the box and attempted a brave header, getting clattered in the process. The Arshavin of 2010 wouldn’t even have jumped knowing there was a chance of a collision. It would be fantastic if we could have a revitalised, focused Arshavin this season – fingers crossed.
Our defence was pleasingly secure for much of the half, although a misunderstanding between Vermaelen and Szczesny led to Jara going clean through and attempting an outrageous dive for which he was rightly booked.
Another goal tonight. We need Robin fit for the whole season
Gervinho went close at the other end, turning his marker inside out before shooting into the side netting. He is a very direct player and it was good to see him prepared to take on his man and head for goal rather than check, turn and pass it backwards. On the evidence of the last few weeks getting £20m for Nasri would be great business with this guy on board.
On the half hour mark with Arsenal in the ascendancy, Song played a great ball to send van Persie clear, but his right footed chip landed wide. I think if he had that chance against Newcastle next week he’d lash it home – this was a bit of showboating.
Two minutes later he did finish properly to put the Gunners 1-0 up, converting a low cross from the impressive Gibbs, who had shown great endeavour in attack and looked comfortable defending. I was beginning to think maybe I’d misjudged him when I’d previously doubted his ability to fill Clichy’s boots as our number one left back, but the second half explained everything.
After half time Wenger gave all of his reserves a game, with only Vermaelen, Gibbs, Ramsey and Gervinho staying on. The Benfica boss did the opposite, replacing his reserves with their Champions League heroes and restoring the Portuguese heavyweights to full strength.
What a difference!
Whereas we’d been marginally the better side in the first half, it now became apparent that we’d been playing a very poor Benfica Reserve XI. The shoe was on the other foot now and in contrast our Reserve XI were absolutely pummeled by Benfica’s first choice line up.
They took just five minutes to equalise. Gibbs was beaten too easily (he was now facing decent players don’t forget) and when the ball eventually arrived near the penalty spot, Vermaelen was outmuscled by the tiny Argentinian Aimar, who expertly stroked the ball past Fabianski.
10 minutes later it was 2-1. Nolito jinked inside Squillaci with embarrassing ease and beat Fabianski at his near post. It was a sweetly struck shot but the Pole hadn’t got his angles right.
The rest of the half continued in the same men-against-boys vein. We didn’t have any efforts on goal while Fabianski had to make three decent saves and rely on his crossbar to keep the score down. He did well, but what use is it if you’re conceding a sloppy goal for every three good saves you make? He isn’t good enough for Arsenal and never will be, even as a number two. £3.5m for Shay Given is looking more and more like a missed opportunity.
Now I know it was our reserves in the second half, but the point is that these guys will have a big part to play this season. They will be thrown in against sides better than Benfica and I wonder just how many points the likes of Fabianski and Squillaci will cost us. They cost us last season and they’ll cost us this season. I don’t mean to isolate those two, but at least they have experience and should be performing better, unlike the very raw Traore, Miyachi, Frimpong and Jenkinson.
Positives: The first half was encouraging, but must be put into the context of just how under-strength Benfica were. It would’ve been interesting to see the two best XIs going at it for 45 minutes, but it wasn’t to be. Gervinho was again impressive, Arshavin looks a different player in terms of his attitude and Frimpong put himself about in the second half at least. Good to see somebody playing with a bit of fire in their belly.
Negatives: The entire second half performance, the continued costly errors made by Squillaci, Fabianski and Gibbs (although at least Gibbs will improve, my concern is he’s not ready to be a first choice) and the fact we haven’t anybody to fill Fabregas’ role as chief creator. Rosicky did ok against weak opposition but he’s not up to the job long term.
So all the preparation is now done, the side has been finely tuned and there’s just seven days to go until the big kick off. Confident? No, me neither….
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