Going into the game away at Galatasaray, it was difficult to know how much Arsenal could actually get out of it. The game was almost a dead-rubber, and with a mix and match squad of first-teamers, fringe players and youngsters, I was struggling to see how much could be gained from the match to improve the rather toxic mood around Arsenal Football Club in the days after the capitulation at Stoke.
As it turned out, a rampaging Gunners team with a point to prove destroyed the hosts in a clinical and hugely encouraging first-half display. Galatasaray were pretty accommodating hosts with an indifferent performance, but they came up against a well-motivated team who looked determined to right Saturday’s wrongs, even though half of Tuesday’s starting XI hadn’t started the game at the Britannia. The win wasn’t enough to top the group, but the 4-1 triumph was a timely reminder of what Arsenal can do to teams if they get in the groove, and should lighten the mood among supporters.
At the forefront of the first half barrage which took Arsenal to a 3-0 half-time lead was Aaron Ramsey. It’s been well documented how, much like the whole team, he’s had an indifferent season, but there were signs in the wins against Dortmund and West Brom that he was beginning to find some rhythm in his game again. He then broke his goal drought with a fine strike at Stoke before, alongside Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, absolutely dominating the game in the first half in Istanbul.
Inside the opening few minutes, he found space to drive at the defence and set-up Lukas Podolski for the opening goal. With a little over ten minutes on the clock, Ramsey then made a late burst from midfield, the sort we became accustomed to seeing last season, to get on the end of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pass and calmly roll the ball into the far corner. For the first time in he season, it finally felt like the Welsh Messiah had risen.
With a goal and an assist already in the bag for Ramsey, he did something that out-did most footballing deities. The ball dropped out of the Galatasaray box, and with his weaker left foot, Ramsey produced the perfect fizzing volley into the top corner from over 30 yards out.
It’s been easy to forget in the last few days that football is, predominantly, meant to be fun. With all that’s been written, said and posted on YouTube by Arsenal fans in the aftermath of that Stoke defeat, any outsider looking in would wonder why fans bother watching football if all is does is get people wound up. But, on Tuesday night, Aaron Ramsey reminded us why we bother. Sometimes you see things that are outrageous, that are supremely skilful and things that can put a smile on people’s faces. Whatever your views on the manager, the formation, the team selection or the transfer policy are, you can still enjoy and marvel at such a wonderful goal, and feel proud that it was an Arsenal player that scored it.
Having Ramsey finding some form again is vital to the team, and in his 45-minute run-out, it seemed like all the pressure that could have been holding him back this season was lifted in a majestic performance.
The other star of the show was Lukas Podolski. Even though Ramsey’s second goal was stunning, it wasn’t good enough to be the hardest struck of Arsenal’s four goals. Podolski’s opener looked like it was fired by a player looking to prove a point. The German took one touch after Ramsey’s through ball and released all of the kraken he’s been saving up this season to thunder the ball into the roof of the net.
To score so early in the game, and with such a powerful shot, was a statement from Arsenal that they weren’t just in Turkey to play out a dead game, but they were there to make a point. That point was relevant individually for the likes of Podolski and Joel Campbell, and collectively to show they could quickly put the debacle of Saturday behind them.
Even though Arsenal were understandably much quieter in the second half, mainly because of Ramsey and Flamini being replaced at half-time by youngsters Zelalem and Maitland-Niles, Podolski was still able to bag a brace by going on a direct run towards goal, exchanging passes with Sanogo and calmly slotting the ball past the goalkeeper with the last kick of the game. In the busy Christmas period, the German will surely get some league starts after this clinical display.
Wojciech Szczesny and his back four will have been disappointed to not leave with a clean sheet after a disciplined performance, helped by Arsenal being able to allow Galatasaray to attack before springing the deadly ounter-attacks on the hosts. Per Mertesacker looked much more like his normal self after a very dodgy game on Saturday, and he came up with a fantastic sliding defensive block from point-blank range during the one moment of panic in the Arsenal box in the second half. The defence can take heart from the fact that the one goal they did concede was almost unstoppable as Sneijder’s free-kick almost matched Podolski’s first half goal for power and placement.
I think Arsene Wenger got the team selection right, as even though there was a fleeting possibility of topping the group, there really wasn’t much use to risking the likes of Alexis, Giroud, Welbeck and others given the current injury problems. He was able to give much needed minutes to the returning Debuchy along with are front three, while giving youngsters a chance alongside a few experienced first-teamers to bolster the squad. To have such a commanding lead at half time was also ideal for Wenger as he didn’t need to risk Ramsey and Flamini in the second half.
Obviously there’ll be tougher tests and that game clearly won’t answer the majority of questions that fans have after Saturday, but it should put a smile back on the faces of Arsenal fans. Besides, if you can’t smile and marvel at Ramsey’s ridiculous thriker of a second goal, then you might as well not bother watching football. The healing process takes time, and Tuesday was the best start to it that we could have hoped for.