For those who assumed that their spectacular victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday would herald a new dawn for Arsène Wenger's re-modelled Arsenal team, last night was the occasion when they came back down to earth with a bump.
This was not a disaster but it was a performance that had rather too many of those aspects of bad old Arsenal that send the Emirates crowd out grumbling into the night. There were the spurned chances, a deeply ineffective Theo Walcott performance and the old Arsenal tendency to let the game slip away from them.
It was all underpinned by Wenger's decision to leave Robin van Persie on the bench, which he later admitted had been a mistake. The Premier League's leading goalscorer was finally summoned from his seat on 62 minutes and he did have the best chance of the second half to win the game. But his Superman act cannot be relied upon every time Arsenal need to rescue an unpromising situation.
The Dutch striker's injury record dictates that it would be foolish to play him relentlessly but after his hat-trick against Chelsea even Wenger seemed regretful afterwards that he had chosen to omit him for this game. "It was a bit on the edge," he said of his decision. "It was a gamble. You could say that it did not come off."
When Didier Deschamps said after the game that his Marseilles team could have won the match it was prudent to point out that they had just one shot on target in comparison to Arsenal's seven. Nevertheless it was clear that it was the French side who gained momentum in the second half right until the end of the game when Arsenal had a late rally.
Wenger, who also left out Laurent Koscielny, said that Saturday's 5-3 win had taken a toll on his team. "It was emotionally more than physically," he said. "It is different to be on a high three days later." As for Van Persie, he also argued that the player was simply "tired" and needed resting. "He was tired, that's why I left him out," Wenger said. "You get fatigue. We play 50 games in a year and he [Van Persie] cannot play 50 games.
"He had a great chance when he came on. He tried to chip the keeper. We have to accept it. But overall you cannot just say one player has to make the difference. It was a game where we were physically not the sharpest."
A victory last night would have tidied up the question of qualification for Arsenal and while they are still top of Group F, they do not want to make the same mistake they did last season of finishing second in the group. Next up will be Borussia Dortmund, who beat Olympiakos last night, and Arsenal need to win that game.
In Van Persie's place came Park Ju-young and, while the Dutchman's are big boots to fill, it was a struggle at times for the South Korean to make any impact at all. It makes you wonder what Wenger will do if the worst happens and an injury does befall his captain this season because Park still looks a long way off the pace required at this exalted level.
As for Marseilles, they started the game strongly, as even Wenger conceded. Jordan Ayew's improvised flick with the inside of his heel was the first signal that his side were prepared to push their opponents back when they got the chance. Andre Ayew also got in at the near post from Loic Remy's cross from the right early on but put his shot wide.
Arsenal still created chances, with five shots on goal in the first half, although they missed Van Persie's calm in front of goal. They appeared to have a decent shout for a penalty when Andre Santos's cross from the left struck the hands of Souleymane Diawara but the referee ruled that the contact had taken place just outside the penalty area.
There was a promising first half from Aaron Ramsey who ran out of steam later on, but not before he had one of his side's better chances. Santos, an attacking threat all night, broke down the left and chipped the ball to the back post for Ramsey who could not keep his shot on target.
Deschamps' team are only ninth in Ligue 1 but last night they dominated central midfield for long periods and had the better of the second half. Wenger brought on Van Persie shortly after the hour for the ineffective Park. The big chance for Van Persie came on 76 minutes when Tomas Rosicky's intelligent ball allowed the Arsenal substitute a run from right to left at the Marseilles goal. He did not have the space to bear down directly on goalkeeper Steve Mandanda and so had to try a chip into the far corner but he never got the requisite loft on the ball to carry it over the goalkeeper.
That was about as good as it got for Arsenal. There was a very decent clearing header from the defender Jeremy Morel towards the end of the game when Van Persie's cross threatened to cause problems but otherwise it was a dispiriting conclusion to the game for the home fans. Many of them were already drifting towards the exits before the end, no doubt wondering what version of this Arsenal team will turn up at home to West Bromwich Albion on Saturday.
Man of the match Diarra.
Match rating 5/10.
Referee P Tagliavento (Italy).
Attendance 59,961.Reuse content