Arsene Wenger can rarely have enjoyed a defeat so much. With qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League already in the bag, last night's match against Olympiakos was all about how his young stars would get on: despite defeat courtesy of a Geraldo Leonardo goal, he will have been pleased with what he saw. While Tom Cruise was understandably centre of attention (at least until the real Tom Cruise turned up at Seville), it was Aaron Ramsey who impressed most, playing in place of Cesc Fabregas as Arsenal's playmaker.
You could tell just how satisfied Wenger was at the final whistle: not only did he shake his Olympiakos counterpart Zico's hand, but he also honoured him with a big hug. Mark Hughes, watch and weep.
"I am very proud of the young players, there are a lot of positives," Wenger said. "From Barnet to Athens is a big jump, but they did very well. Nobody was disappointing, and it is difficult to single out individual performances, although Ramsey had a good presence, gave good balls and produced a good work rate. They all looked like they played every week in this competition.
"These youngsters play exactly like the first team, and they represented Arsenal well tonight," he added, "despite the fact that they are the youngest team to have played in the Champions League."
Cruise, 18, was handed his Arsenal debut at left-back while the England forward Theo Walcott, fit again following a hamstring problem, also started. Olympiakos needed only a point to join Arsenal in the last 16 but it was, though, a bright start by the young Gunners with Fran Merida seeing plenty of the ball in the middle. Ramsey was also heavily involved. After 10 minutes, Walcott broke into the right side of the penalty area, but his rising shot was parried by the goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis.
Olympiakos broke quickly through Argentine Luciano Galletti down the right, with Oscar Gonzalez touching the ball off to Kostas Mitroglou, only for the Greek striker to fire over the crossbar.
Walcott continued to look menacing, and again burst into the area, this time on the left before being crowded out by two defenders. Arsenal had a free-kick on the left when Dudu was penalised for handball, giving another chance to swing a cross into the danger zone. Walcott laid the ball back to Ramsey, but his angled drive was always rising.
Raul Bravo volleyed over as another home counter-attack came to nothing, much to the frustration of the crowd. Their misery turned to jubilation, however, when Olympiakos took the lead at the start of the second half. Kyle Bartley upended Oscar Gonzalez, but the referee played a good advantage as Leonardo latched on to the loose ball and dashed into the left side of the area before slotting through Lukasz Fabianski's legs to put the Greeks within sight of the knockout stages.
Arsenal should have equalised when Ramsey dashed clear down the Olympiakos left and to the edge of the 18-yard box before cleverly cutting a pass square to Carlos Vela, but the Mexican hit his shot straight at the keeper.
Arsenal's youngsters continued to fight to the end, almost grabbing a late equaliser when Ramsey's close-range effort was cleared off the line, and will certainly have grown wiser from the experience.
Olympiakos (4-4-1-1): Nikopolidis; Galitsios, A Papadopoulos, Mellberg, Raul Bravo; Galletti, Dudu (Domi, 86), Maresca, Leonardo; Oscar (Pantos, 90); Mitroglou. Substitutes not used: Pardo (gk), K Papadopoulos, Zairi, Georgios, Pantos, Katsikogiannis.
Arsenal (4-3-3): Fabianski; Gilbert, Bartley, Silvestre, Cruise; Ramsey, Song Billong, Merida; Walcott, Wilshere (Sunu, 77), Vela. Substitutes not used: Mannone (gk), Coquelin, Eastmond, Ayling, Randall.
Referee: L Batista (Portugal).
Results: Arsenal 2 S Liège 0, AZ Alkmaar 0 Olympiakos 0; Arsenal 4 AZ Alkmaar 1, S Liège 2 Olympiakos 0; AZ Alkmaar 1 Arsenal 1, Olympiakos 2 S Liège 1; Arsenal 2 Olympiakos 0, AZ Alkmaar 1 S Liège 1; Olympiakos 1 AZ Alkmaar 0, S Liège 2, Arsenal 3, Olympiakos 1 Arsenal 0, S Liège 1 AZ Alkmaar 1.
Arsenal's possible round of 16 opponents: Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow, Milan, Porto, Lyons, Internazionale, Stuttgart.
Knockout round: The qualifiers
Group winners Bordeaux, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Fiorentina, Barcelona, Sevilla, Arsenal.
Runners-up Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow, Milan, Porto, Lyons, Internazionale, Stuttgart, Olympiakos.
Draw to be made 11am, Friday 18 December, in Nyon
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