Arsene Wenger and Arsenal need a 'Christmas present' from the Champions League draw now
Olympiakos 2 Arsenal 1
The line-up may have changed significantly but Arsenal’s malaise continues. Arsène Wenger made seven changes to the team dispatched by Swansea last weekend but defeat to Olympiakos carried all the hallmarks of his first-choice side.
After flattering to deceive for 45 minutes, alarming defensive lapses cost the Gunners here as Tomas Rosicky's fine first-half effort was overturned by goals from Giannis Maniatis and substitute Kostas Mitroglou.
Arsenal collapsed to finish second in Group B and face the prospect of their last 16 tie being decided away from the Emirates Stadium. Victory would have been enough to avoid that situation, just as Wenger predicted pre-match, after Montpellier held Schalke to a 1-1 draw in France.
Only after the draw for the first knockout stage is concluded on 20 December will the full damage of this result be determined in the context of Arsenal's European aspirations – the prospect of another meeting with Barcelona exists – but Wenger was left to pray for a kinder fate.
"We need a good Christmas present now [in the draw]," he said. "We'll see. The disadvantage we have is we play the second game away, but it's not statistically proven it's a disadvantage. The important thing now is to forget about the Champions League and get ourselves back in decent form in the championship."
Indeed, this result did little to dampen the negativity permeating the club at present after slumping to 10th place in the Premier League table.
Rosicky, marking his first start of the season following a tendon injury with his first goal since March, was a positive influence but whether he is sufficiently ready to reinvigorate the Gunners' Premier League campaign remains to be seen.
Wenger has bemoaned his side's lack of creativity – Santi Cazorla appears fatigued after starting all 15 league games to date – but he needs more than a revived Rosicky on this evidence after another disappointing evening which highlighted a lack of character and resolve, even mitigating for the low stakes involved.
Arsenal have ended their group stage campaign in Piraeus in three of the last four seasons. Each time qualification had already been secured prior to arrival and each time they have been beaten.
Jernade Meade was drafted in at left-back for his Champions League debut and his inclusion was almost as surprising as the omission of Andrei Arshavin, who must be a certainty to leave next month after failing to make the starting line-up for a match of as little significance as this.
Arsenal initially left their recent travails behind them and began brightly. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain stood a cross up to the back post which Marouane Chamakh headed down and after the ball escaped Olympiakos defender Drissa Diakité, Aaron Ramsey had a golden chance, arriving late into the box but completely missing his kick.
The home side roused themselves. Pablo Contreras headed a corner goalwards forcing Rosicky to clear the ball off the line before Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was forced into action, flying to his right to repel Djamel Abdoun's shot.
Rafik Djebbour headed straight at Szczesny from the resultant corner prior to firing wastefully over when found smartly by the lively Abdoun.
The Gunners looked vulnerable with Sébastien Squillaci's positional sense particularly suspect but continued to carry a threat going forward and took the lead on 38 minutes. Gervinho runs down cul-de-sacs so often he should have one named after him but upon charging into a scrum of Olympiakos defenders, somehow he dug out a fine pull-back for Rosicky to sidefoot past the former Manchester United and West Ham goalkeeper Roy Carroll.
Wenger had seen enough to convince him of Rosicky's wellbeing and he was withdrawn at the interval, replaced by Arshavin. "We decided before the game to play for 45 minutes and see how he got on," said Wenger. "He's a bit tight, muscular, but no injury. We'll see how he recovers now for Saturday against West Brom."
Any notion of a welcome success quickly evaporated as defensive shortcomings reared themselves again albeit amid some controversy. Paulo Machado was left unmarked to head against Szczesny's left-hand post, with Spanish referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco adjudging the Pole to have made contact with his despairing dive.
From the resulting corner, the Gunners failed to clear and Maniatis forced the ball home. Szczesny was livid and was cautioned for his protest. Afterwards, Szczesny confirmed to reporters that the fifth official had told him he thought Arsenal should have had a goal-kick. "Why didn't the fifth official tell the referee?" argued Wenger. "It's difficult to understand, I don't want to make a fuss of it but it's difficult to concede a corner when it doesn't go off the goalkeeper"
It got worse. Moments after coming off the bench, Mitroglou turned away from Carl Jenkinson and curled a fine 20-yard effort into the bottom corner past Szczesny, who reacted late.
Wenger had no ammunition on the bench to respond and Arsenal's dismal run was extended to one win from eight games.
Man of the match Maniatis.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee A U Mallenco (Sp).
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