The most interesting thing about last night’s first leg of this Europa Leage round of 32 tie against Olympiacos was the Arsenal starting eleven. In goal, Mikel Arteta selected Bernd Leno, going against the cup keeper policy of recent seasons. That showed intention. And yet, Sokratis was fielded at right back, not a policy that looked too convincing when the Greek played there in the FA Cup against Leeds. I can only assume the thinking was that Sokratis would be a more natural fit to slot into a back three when Bukayo Saka forayed forward, instead of Grant Xhaka joining the backline as has often happened under Arteta. Ainsley Maitland-Niles was on the bench with Bellerin rested and he’s done well in that position since the new head coach arrived. We’ll see what happens next week. Guendouzi came into the central midfield as Ceballos stepped down – more due to match fitness than anything else. Martinelli was selected ahead of Pepe, whilst Joe Willock played in the Ozil position.
Things really didn’t start well. The homes side could easily have been two goals up before five minutes had been played, but cups are often about luck, and these turned out to be the best chances the Greek team enjoyed, with one (wrongly awarded) free kick in the second half their only other chance of note as Leno initially failed to hang onto the ball, recovering just in time. I’d like to say the rest of the game was all Arsenal, although until the last ten minutes, they only created a couple of notable chances themselves. Lacazette could have scored on both occasions, but they were not as straightforward as the ones spurned by Olympiacos.
What was encouraging, in terms of the Gunners’ chances in this competition, was that they did control the ball enough to take the sting out of the game. It didn’t make for entertaining viewing, but that is often the way with two-legged affairs of this nature. Liverpool, in their most successful European era, used to bore the pants off crowds, but got results doing it. This was in the days when back passes could be picked up by the keeper.
Ceballos replaced Martinelli just before the hour, with Willock moving wide to accommodate the Spaniard. The youngster in turn was replaced by Pepe with 15 minutes left. A goal came out of nowhere, thanks largely due to a run into the area by Saka to pick up a pass from Aubameyang, who was out wide. The left back played an excellent pass across the face of the goal for Lacazette to tap-in, making it two goals in two games after his recent drought.
With the home side having to try and salvage something, Arsenal enjoyed two more chances to increase their lead, Lacazette seeing a shot saved and Sokratis hitting the bar from a corner. If one of those had gone in, Arteta could probably have got away with playing a shadow team next Thursday. As it is, the one goal lead should be enough as long as his players are not complacent. There is every chance though that Olympiacos will find the net next Thursday, having scored on their last three visits, winning 3-2 on the last occasion in 2015. So this tie isn’t done yet, and if the Greek side score first in the return leg, it’s very much game on.
The first leg will be quickly forgotten, aside from the quality of the solitary goal. A draw was a fairer result. Olympiacos weren’t dominated, but rather like Celtic and Rangers in Scotland, perhaps they suffer by being in a league where most of the opposition are at a lower level. They have not lost a league match all season. No doubt there are far better sides in the tournament should Arsenal go through. But Arteta’s team selection, and the difficulty even a very strong side had in getting a result, indicates that the head coach is certainly taking the Europa League seriously, and needs to if they are to conquer stronger sides.
It could have been a very different story had the Greeks taken the early lead their chances offered them, but misses are often what determine two-legged ties. Let’s hope Olympiacos rue their profligacy in front of goal and that the draw for the round of 16 does not test Arsenal too greatly. There are some weaker teams in the mix as well, weaker than Olympiacos. Let us hope that Arteta’s players can see the job through. The prize at the end of this competition is worth focusing efforts, and there is no question that is what the head coach is thinking.
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