Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Arsenal's strong selection pays off as Ludogorets stun PSG

Arsene Wenger made six changes for the game with Basel from the weekend win at West Ham, but it was a much stronger side than expected for a game that seemed like a dead rubber. I didn’t expect to see Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez in the line-up, but they both were in from the start.
It was a difficult decision for Wenger because if he picked a strong side and PSG won comfortably against Ludogorets to seal top spot, as had been expected, and one of his big players picked up an injury, questions would have been asked. On the flip side, had he picked a significantly weaker side and Arsenal didn’t capitalise on any slip-ups from PSG, he’d then have been criticised for missing another chance to top the group.
In the end, Wenger’s decision to make sure Arsenal kept up their end of the bargain was entirely justified as his side strolled to a comfortable 4-1 win against Basel, while Ludogorets twice went ahead against PSG before finishing with a 2-2 draw. It was ideal for the Arsenal manager as his team built on the momentum gained in the thumping victory at the Olympic Stadium, and with Arsenal four goals up with half an hour to go, he was able to take Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil off with the game won and keep them fresh for the weekend’s Premier League game.
The 2-2 draw in Paris was a surprise, but merited for a Ludogorets team that have applied themselves well in a difficult group. Even in the 6-0 defeat at the Emirates, they played some positive football and had chances before getting taken apart by Mesut Ozil. With PSG wasting plenty of chances, the Bulgarians hung in there and deserve to take their place in the Europa League by virtue of finishing third in the group. 
For Arsenal, along with Alexis and Ozil playing superbly, the fresh players brought into the starting XI all stepped up and made their mark, in a way they didn’t do against Southampton a week earlier in the EFL Cup. No-one took their chance more than Lucas Perez.
The Spaniard has had a stop-start opening to his Arsenal career as he’s tried to adapt to English football, and he suffered a nasty ankle injury that kept him out for a month, but he showed great goal-scoring instincts in Switzerland to bag himself a Champions League hat-trick with only three shots in the game. 
The first two were very simple finishes, but he had to be in the right place to get a couple of tap-ins after Kieran Gibbs twice snuck in behind the defence when charging forward from left-back. For the first one, Gibbs was found by a sumptuous pass from Alexis before he squared the ball across the six-yard box for Lucas to score. Moments later, a move of more than 30 passes ended as Mesut Ozil slid a perfectly-weighted pass to Gibbs, whose shot was parried and Lucas gobbled up the rebound to net his second. 
In truth, Lucas Perez had a pretty quiet game for the most part, which is understandable as he’s still getting back to full fitness after his injury, but he got his reward for being willing to get into the six-yard box from a wide position as play developed on the other flank. With Alexis dropping deep from the centre-forward role, Lucas read the play well to pop-up in the centre to score his first two goals.
Leading 2-0 at half-time, Arsenal could have played quite conservatively in the second half and just let the game drift away, but they seemed buoyed by news of Ludogorets leading in Paris and seemed determined to kill the game off against Basel as soon as possible, as that would put more pressure on the Parisians if PSG got wind of the fact that Arsenal were in no danger of dropping points. The Gunners’ tempo in the opening stages of the second half was impressive and almost surprised Basel, who might have expected Arsenal to hold back slightly.
It wasn’t long after the break before Lucas completed his hat-trick. Kieran Gibbs intercepted well before firing a pass towards Alexis, who couldn’t quite get the ball under control. However it ran into the path of Lucas, who confidently took the shot on early from just inside the box with his weaker foot, catching out the goalkeeper who couldn’t prevent the ball nestling in the bottom corner of the net.
Arsenal were then playing with a freedom that was just glorious to watch. The front four were so fluid, with Aaron Ramsey also starting to make bursts from midfield and getting involved higher up the pitch. The fourth goal was a work of art as the incisive move started back in Arsenal’s half and ended with Alexis feeding Ozil, who in turn cut the ball back for Alex Iwobi to tap home. What was incredible about the goal was how the centre-forward popped up on the left to set-up the attacking midfielder who had appeared up-front, before he put the goal on a plate for the left winger, who had come steaming in from the right to score. Total football.
Arsenal are scoring plenty of goals and sharing the goal-scoring love around the squad. Apart from Alexis and Ozil, the rest of the forward players have all contributed at different times this season. Just in the last five days, Arsenal scored five away in the league on Saturday and scored four away in Europe on Tuesday and had different scorers in both games. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain might have thought he was nailing his place in the team after an excellent showing at West Ham, but then his main rivals for a starting place both netted in Switzerland. The competition for places is bringing more out of players on the fringes and Arsene Wenger has generally rotated his squad pretty well to give everyone an opportunity at some point to make a difference. 
One of the only ways Basel could stop Arsenal was by fouling them, but even this was difficult as Arsenal’s movement and speed-of-thought was so much sharper. When Alexis was brought down 30 yards from goal, he almost punished Basel with a stunning, swerving free-kick which cannoned back off the bar. That was his last piece of action as Arsene Wenger was able to replace Alexis, Ozil and Ramsey with the game already won.
Basel, to their credit, did get a goal back with a nice piece of skill and dinked finish from Doumbia, but it didn’t change the fact it had virtually been a perfect night for Arsenal. Along with those who impressed going forward, Gabriel had another solid game at right-back, while Kieran Gibbs was exceptional on the other flank and Rob Holding looked good alongside Laurent Koscielny. Granit Xhaka handled the return to his first club superbly and ran the midfield.
There’s obviously still a chance that Arsenal will get a nasty draw in the next round because of the likes of Bayern Munich and one of Real Madrid or Borussia Dortmund lurking as a group runner-up, but Arsenal can go into the round of 16 with much more confidence. If the draw is unkind, then that’s just bad luck as the Gunners played a great group stage and deservedly won the group. It also would have been embarrassing for UEFA if PSG had topped the group just because of one additional away goal compared to Arsenal’s huge goal difference in comparison.