The final round of group games in the 2011/12 European Champions League was played this week, resulting both Manchester millionaires clubs exiting the competition. At the same time London clubs Arsenal and Chelsea both progressed as winners of their groups.
Manchester United failed to qualify for the round of 16 for only the third time in the last 17 years. United went into their away match at FC Basel needing only a draw to go through. But were defeated 2-1 by the Swiss side. To add to their woes their captain Nemanja Vidic was stretchered off with a bad knee injury that could see him out for several months.
The multi millions invested in players and coaches by the Manchester City owners could not buy them a future in the Champions League. Although City won their final group game, beating Bayern Munich 2-0 at the City of Manchester Stadium, their earlier bad results in the competition meant that their destiny was not in their own hands. When Napoli defeated Villarreal 2-0 in Spain they ensured their own passage to the knock out rounds as runners up to Bayern Munich in Group A.
Chelsea, whose future in the tournament was not assured before their final game at home to Valencia, cast aside all doubt by beating the Spanish side 3-0 with two goals from Didier Drogba. Chelsea finished top of Group E with German side Bayer Leverkusen qualifying as runners up.
Arsenal had already confirmed themselves as winners of Group F before their final group game at Olympiakos in Greece. So Arsene Wenger took the opportunity to rest most of his first team regulars for the game. Unfortunately the second string players, given a chance to prove their worth, almost to a man let themselves down. Arsenal were defeated 3-1 but unfortunately for Olympiakos, Marseille came back from 2 goals down to beat Borussia Dortmund and progress as group runners up.
The Arsenal side fielded against Olympiakos featured many of the players who had fared so well against a Manchester City side, valued at either 120 or 190 million pounds, (depending which commentators you listen to) in the League Cup a week before. But none of them replicated their form from that match. Fabianski and Mannone destroyed the theory that the goalkeeping crisis was over at Arsenal, both putting in poor performances that resulted in goals for Olympiakos. Fabianski flapped around conceding one goal before he was injured in the 25th minute and carried off. Mannone replaced him, only to give Olympiakos their second goal. For some reason he decided to head away a ball on the edge of his area, rather than catching or punching it. It of course landed straight in the path of the oncoming Fuster, who hit it back towards him. Once again he decided not to use his hands and tried to scissor kick the ball away, missing it entirely, for it to end up in the net.
Djourou and Squillaci were terrible in the Arsenal defence giving the ball away and offering opportunities to Olympiakos on numerous occasions. Coquelin and Frimpong were unable to repeat their fine performances against Manchester City. Coquelin was replaced by Rosicky after 67 minutes and Frimpong, unable to control his aggression once again, was booked and was probably lucky not to be sent off. Andre Santos who had made some blunders in defence was also carried off and could leave Arsenal without a recognised left back for their Premier League game against Everton on Saturday, while Koscielny continues to fill in on the right in the absence of a fit specialist for that position. Believe it or not Arsene Wenger was quoted during the week as saying he will not be buying any players in the January transfer window as he was happy with what he had.
On the more positive side Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had a reasonable performance, although not as impressive or influential as his previous first team appearances. Up front Arshavin and Chamakh were industrious but failed to put away opportunities, whereas Yossi Benayoun made the most of his 57th minute chance to score Arsenal’s consolation goal.
The goalkeeping situation seems endemic at Arsenal. As good a shot stopper as Wojciech Szczesny is, he also has problems around the edge of his area, coming out too far too often and his distribution is often suspect. He is only 21 so hopefully these things will improve, but not if the performances of Fabianski and Mannone are anything to go by. There does not seem to be anyone at Arsenal coaching these players in what to do in those situations. Having the ball at the goalkeeper’s feet was an absolute liability for Arsenal on Tuesday.
But putting that game aside Arsenal have much to be happy about at the moment. They are back in the top five of the Premier League and on excellent form (when the first choices are selected) and while Manchester United and City can only make use of their multi million pound squads in the Europa League, Arsenal progress to the last 16 of the Europe’s premier club competition. Along with Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Napoli, Inter Milan, CSKA Moscow, Benfica, FC Basel, Real Madrid, Lyon, Bayer Leverkusen, Marseille, Apoel Nicosia, Zenit St Petersburg, Barcelona and AC Milan.
By Max Power