No team has proved quite so dysfunctional as Arsenal once did in the darkest hour of their season so far but last night they won their Champions League group with a game to spare and a spring in their step.
It was a very different story at the Emirates to the tales of woe that have unfolded to varying degrees this week for the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and, most perilous of all the English teams, Manchester City. The good news has been in short supply at times this season at Arsenal but last night Arsène Wenger could afford to smile the smile of the man whose club have done the job – for now.
Best news of all for Arsenal? This season, in the first knockout round at least, Barcelona are someone else's problem. So too Real Madrid, Internazionale, Bayern Munich, all of them, like Arsenal, the winners of their groups so far and seeded for the draw on 9 December. Last season Arsenal fouled up their last two games in the group stages, finished second and were eliminated in February by Barça.
Considering that this particular Champions League journey began with a nerve-jangling qualifier against Udinese, Arsenal have come a long way from the start of the season when Samir Nasri's sale was announced as the team arrived at Luton airport for the flight to Italy. So far, so good for Wenger although he knows to take nothing for granted.
Who else but Robin van Persie to score both Arsenal goals, which takes his total for the year to 38 in 41 matches. And what more can be said about the man with the stupendous goalscoring record for Arsenal? He becomes more indispensable with every game. When the striker went down with a knock in the second half there was a cheer when he clambered back up to his feet.
Offered the chance to gloat at the travails of his fellow English clubs, Wenger offered no shot. "I have to very cautious about what I say," he said with a smile on his lips. Earlier he had theorised that the standard in domestic championships all over Europe had improved and made it more difficult.
"We were in a difficult group and I am happy that we came through," he said. "We drew Udinese in the qualifiers and you couldn't exactly bet that we would go [through] like we did. Overall I'm very pleased. We came through a very difficult period. We are focussed and united and we have worked hard."
The unexpected defeat for Marseilles at home to Olympiakos last night in the other Group F game, means that Wenger's team, group winners with a game to go, can take it very easy indeed against in their final game in Athens on 6 December. Wenger can even play the kids if he so decides and he will certainly give Van Persie a well-deserved rest.
Asked whether there was a danger that his team could become too reliant on Van Persie, Wenger said that it was inevitable that in the Dutchman's current form the side looked to him for goals. "At the moment I believe Van Persie is an exceptional player and takes advantage of our offensive style.
"From the wings we create a lot of chances," he added, "but I don't deny he is the one at the moment who scores all the goals. We hope we can keep him fit and he is with us for a long time."
Last night Arsenal were slow to start and lacking in inspiration at first against the German champions. Borussia Dortmund, however, were undermined by the loss of two of their bright young players within the first half an hour. The first to go was Sven Bender, a Germany international who hurt his jaw in a collision with Thomas Vermaelen and departed on a stretcher.
The prodigy Mario Gotze was even more of a worry and eventually the 19-year-old midfielder signalled that he was no longer able to carry on. The game lost its tempo. In the stands, Thierry Henry talked Roger Federer through the finer points of the Champions League.
After the break the Germans started stronger but it was from Alex Song that the game's true moment of brilliance came. Song earns his living as the midfield destroyer who chases, tackles and gets a foot in. He is a class above the figure of old who did that in English football but, nonetheless, you do not expect to see him twisting between two opponents and delivering pinpoint crosses for his centre-forward.
There were four minutes of the second half gone when Song took the ball down the left wing, first eluding Kevin Grosskreutz. Checking back he cut in and, in one movement, swept the ball from one foot to another to steer a delicate path between Sebastian Kehl and Lukasz Piszczek. That done he put in a back post cross that Van Persie headed down past Roman Weidenfeller.
Gervinho missed another good chance for Arsenal before they scored again. The second was a rare set-piece goal for Arsenal: Aaron Ramsey's corner, Vermaelen's flick and Van Persie at the back post to do the rest.
Dortmund should never have been allowed to fashion a consolation goal for Shinji Kagawa in injury time – it was Song's original mistake that conceded possession out on the right side – but Arsenal can be forgiven that. They have learned from the perils of finishing second last season and done the job this year with much less fuss than others that spring to mind.
Frustration for Marseilles
Marseilles were made to wait for a place in the last 16 when they were beaten 1-0 at Stade Vélodrome by Olympiakos. The French side were just eight minutes away from reaching the knockout stage when substitute Giannis Fetfatzidis fired home after the visitors beat the Marseilles offside trap to give his team a deserved win and keep their own hopes of going through alive. In the final games, the Greeks must beat Arsenal and hope that Marseilles do not win at Borussia Dortmund.Reuse content