Arsenal (0) 1 Olympiakos FC (0) 2 (after extra time)
UEFA Europa League, Round of 32, Second Leg
Emirates Stadium, Drayton Park, London N5 1BU
Thursday, 27th February 2020. Kick-off time: 8.00pm
(4-2-3-1) Bernd Leno; Hector Bellerin, Shkodran Mustafi, David Luiz, Bukayo Saka; Dani Ceballos, Granit Xhaka, Nicolas Pépé; Mesut Özil; Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette.
Substitutes: Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Lucas Torreira, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Emiliano Martínez, Joe Willock, Mattéo Guendouzi, Gabriel Martinelli.
Scorers: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (113 mins)
Arsenal Possession Percentage: 50%
Referee: Davide Massa (Italy)
Attendance: circa 40,000
Exactly one week after our victory in Piraeus, courtesy of a solitary Alexandre Lacazette goal, we meet Olympiakos FC in the return leg here in North London. Although left-back Sead Kolašinac is not available tonight due to a very nasty injury against Everton last Sunday, the highly impressive Bukayo Saka takes his place in the starting eleven. We must not take anything for granted with regards to our win in the first leg, so tonight we must be completely single-minded and focussed in our desire to advance in this competition.
Almost from the start, the gulf between the two sides were plainly evident. Slowly and surely, we imposed our will on both Olympiakos and the match with little victories by our players appearing all over the pitch. After twenty minutes, a clumsy foul on Alexandre Lacazette by Ousseynou Ba just outside the visitors’ penalty area led to our first serious attempt on goal; although the subsequent free-kick was blasted over the bar by Nicolas Pépé, you had the feeling that there was going to be goals in this match tonight. Although the Olympiakos’ forwards launched attacks on our goal that were many and often, they all came to nothing and were easily neutralised by our defenders; having said that, complacency led to a strike on our goal by Mohamed Camara after thirty-five minutes. Thankfully, David Luiz spotted the danger and the shot hit the side netting, which became a warning to us all. Alexandre Lacazette put the ball into the net after thirty-nine minutes, only to see it chalked off by the all-seeing eye of VAR for offside, and as the clock ran down to half-time, it was a massive disappointment to everyone in the stadium that we were not ahead in this fairly one-sided and dull match.
The second half started, spiritually, where the first one left off, only this time the visitors seemed to be a trifle more organised than they were in the first. And so we paid for our intransigence with the conceding of a messy goal; in the fifty-third minute, an Olympiakos corner from the right foot of Mathieu Valbuena eventually found the protruding head of the unmarked Pape Abou Cissé, who wasted little time in putting the visitors ahead in this tie on the night. As the scores on aggregate were now equal, the visitors felt the wind in their sails and applied pressure on Bernd Leno’s goal. At the other end, Granit Xhaka’s shot went narrowly past the visitors’ post, and frustration became the order of the day, as it became clear that the harder we tried to score, the further away it seemed. Lucas Torreira replaced a lacklustre Dani Ceballos after seventy-two minutes, and despite the introduction of fresh legs, nothing much changed out there. Nicolas Pépé was unlucky not to score with a clever strike fourteen minutes from time, and with Hector Bellerin being substituted for Joe Willock on the eighty-fourth minute, the crowd sensed that this could be the last throw of the dice for us in normal time.
And so it was as well. With the scores equal on aggregate, thirty minutes of extra time beckoned. Arsenal started off the first period of extra time pressing the Olympiakos goal, and as legs got tired, mistakes were bring made by both sides. Shkodran Mustafi pulled up with a muscle issue in his right leg, and was immediately replaced by our third substitute of the night, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, with three minutes left of the first period of extra time. Entering the second period, this has now become a crucial fifteen minutes of football for Arsenal Football Club; win and we go into the next round, and lose, God forbid, and we forego the chance to win yet another trophy this season. With one eye on a penalty shootout, our fourth and final substitution was made by Mikel Arteta when Alexandre Lacazette was replaced by the quick legs of Gabriel Martinelli. A few minutes later, Giorgos Masouras hit the crossbar with a right footed shot from outside the box that left Bernd Leno grasping for air, and with both sides sensing the little time remaining, threw caution to the wind with attempt after attempt failing miserably. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a truly beautiful cross from Mesut Özil found the head of Gabriel Martinelli, who nodded the ball over to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who scored with a right-footed strike into the bottom left-hand corner of the visitors’ net. And still the drama continued; with a minute left on the clock, a corner given cheaply away by Bernd Leno, found Youssef El-Arabi, who simply ghosted past David Luiz to put Olympiakos two-one ahead on the night. Tragically, with seconds left on the clock, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang put the ball wide of the open goal, which of course simply sealed our fate after over two hours of football. The final whistle blew, and with it, our chances of glory in the Europa League disappeared into the cold North London night.
In comparison with last week’s victory in Piraeus, tonight’s performance was truly, truly turgid. There were whole periods of the match where we lacked cohesion, inspiration and ideas. It is now patently clear to all and sundry that rebuilding this squad of players by Mikel Arteta is absolutely paramount, as we cannot go through yet another season with these footballers as things stand at present. This showed our limitations at the highest level of football, and the consequences of tonight’s result could be a far-reaching one, as it will take a domestic run in the remaining months of Premiership football of almost Herculean performances for us to return to European football next season. What a nightmare scenario for us all. Remember everyone, keep the faith, get behind the team and the manager, as this season is going to be crucial for our future success in all competitions. Stick with the winners. Our next match: Portsmouth at Fratton Park on Monday, 2nd March at 7.45pm (FA Cup). Be there, if you can. Victoria Concordia Crescit.
Too Dearly Loved To Be Forgotten: Arsenal v Racing Club de Paris 1930-1962 by Steve Ingless (Rangemore Publications, ISBN 978-1-5272-0135-4) is now available on Amazon.