To those Arsenal fans who gradually spilled out onto the Holloway Road before the last 12 minutes of this game, shaking their heads and muttering under their breath: you missed a great finale. Sometimes it takes almost an entire game for Arsène Wenger's team to get into gear but once they do it is always worth the wait.
Those home fans who departed prematurely will have been halfway to the tube station when Robin van Persie's goal finally broke down an Olympiakos team that had resisted through a brilliant performance from goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis. When Andrei Arshavin added the second with a cheeky back-heel it was time for the locals to go home happy.
Most of this game was, to put it bluntly, Arsenal v Nikopolidis and it was Nikopolidis who very nearly came out on top. The statistics tell their own story: Arsenal completed 428 passes to Olympiakos' 168 and the home side had 22 shots at goal to their opponent's six. But, in typical Arsenal fashion, they very nearly came out of the match with nothing.
That would have been an uncomfortable storyline to herald Wenger's big day tomorrow when he officially becomes the longest-serving Arsenal manager of all time. The notion of his team being all style without the substance of results is a bit too close to the mark. But in the end Wenger's players gave the lie to that with a resolute, determined performance in which they refused to panic as time ran out.
It was, Wenger said, more vindication that he does not need to spend big to make this team successful. Besides, he said, he cannot buy anyone at the moment. "Everyone wants me to splash out because we have posted good financial results but you cannot buy anyone now, it is closed," he said. "Can you buy players at Waitrose? It [the transfer system] is not a supermarket."
The mention of Waitrose is particularly telling. It would have to be the posh supermarket that the Totteridge-dwelling Arsenal manager picked out, although given his admission that he never goes anywhere apart from his home, the training ground or the stadiums at which Arsenal play, there is a chance that he has never laid eyes on an Asda or Tesco.
It was Cesc Fabregas, Van Persie and Arshavin who ran most of the game, the latter (left) brilliantly inventive and deserving of his goal, even if it was offside. "When you play against 10 men in one half, you need players who can play in a small space," Wenger said. "Arshavin can do that. He was sharp, determined and he's always a threat in these games." It would have been simple for Arsenal were it not for Nikopolidis in the Olympiakos goal. At 37, he is far too old for Wenger ever to consider signing and even if he did the Greek international would have to settle for one year's contract at a time. Prematurely grey and looking even older than his relatively advanced years Nikopolidis was the only man who stood in Arsenal's way last night.
The old boy can do the lot. He can save snap shots in the box; difficult crosses and he can dive at the feet of strikers – he thwarted Arsenal in every possible way. He made great saves from, among others, Tomas Rosicky, Abou Diaby and Arshavin and there was a time when it seemed Arsenal might never get beyond him.
Nikopolidis had to be good because for most of the game his defence were completely out of their depth. None more so than the Spanish left-back Raul Bravo – the player Leeds fans nicknamed "Juliet" during his ill-fated spell at their club – who was turned inside out by one Van Persie dribble. Fabregas's shot smashed the bar on 15 minutes, Van Persie teed up Rosicky with the rebound and Nikopolidis was equal to the shot.
Wenger was full of praise for his side saying that they, "continued to keep the discipline in the team". "That's very satisfying," Wenger said. "We didn't do anything crazy." Well, almost. When Nikopolidis saved a shot from Van Persie on 51 minutes, the Dutch striker committed a terrible foul on Michal Zewlakow as he tried to retrieve the ball. He was booked for it and on another day might have been dismissed.
Wenger threw on Eduardo da Silva, who had not been fit to start, as Arsenal tried to break down the door. Nikopolidis saved brilliantly from Diaby's header and then finally the breakthough came. Diaby was replaced by Carlos Vela and Arsenal scored almost immediately.
Fabregas worked the ball left to Eduardo and he cut back for Van Persie to score from three yards out. Eduardo's ball had taken Nikopolidis out of the game: he was beaten at last.
The second goal came on 86 minutes, a cross from Fabregas on the right and a sweet little flick from Arshavin to deceive Nikopolidis. The replay showed that the Russian international was fractionally offside.
"We played 4-2-4 at some stages, that is a gamble," Wenger said. Which was worth waiting around for.
Arsenal (4-1-4-1): Mannone; Eboué, Gallas, Vermaelen, Clichy; Song; Rosicky (Eduardo, 66), Fabregas, Diaby (Vela, 76), Arshavin; Van Persie (Ramsey, 84). Substitutes not used: Szczesny (gk), Sagna, Senderos, Gibbs.
Olympiakos (4-3-3): Nikopolidis; Zewlakow, A Papadopoulos, Mellberg, Bravo; Torosidis, Ledesma (Mitroglou, 79), Dudu; Zairi (Stoltidis, h-t), Diogo, Leonardo (Gonzalez, 83). Substitutes not used: Pardo (gk), Domi, Galitsios, G Papadopoulos.
Referee: S Lannoy (France).
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