There was a strange atmosphere at the Emirates on Tuesday. This was partly because Dinamo Zagreb are hardly exciting opponents to face, and partly because a win might not have been good enough to keep Arsenal in the Champions League. Despite the very real threat of dropping into the Europa League in the new year, Arsene Wenger’s team had to do everything they could to try and scramble into the last 16 of Europe’s main competition.
Fortunately, Arsenal’s continued existence in the Champions League was also reliant on Bayern Munich beating Olympiacos at the Allianz Arena, and a Bayern home win is as close to a banker as possible in football at the moment. Pep Guardiola’s side duly won 4-0, and with their early goals, Arsenal’s task became clear; any sort of win against Zagreb would keep Arsenal’s qualification hopes alive.
There were some nerves from Arsenal initially as there looked to be a bit of a hangover from the defeat to West Brom, plus there was some pressure to right the wrongs of matchday one when Arsenal lost to the Croats. As the game went on at the Emirates, it emphasised just how poor the performance was in Zagreb in the opening game. The visitors to the Emirates struggled to make much of an impact on the match as Arsenal were able to play their way into the contest.
Despite dominating, Arsenal didn’t create many clear-cut chances in the opening exchanges, with the best opening coming when Nacho Monreal bombed down the left-hand side but couldn’t find Olivier Giroud in the middle with a cross through the penalty area. The Gunners couldn’t quite get Giroud into the game as much as they’d have liked, but as it became clear that Zagreb weren’t offering much of a threat, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil grew into the game and took control of things for Arsenal.
Those two combined at the end of a counter-attack to give the Gunners the lead just before the half-hour mark. Giroud came deep to get involved in the play and helped to spark the attack by poking the ball to Mathieu Flamini, who in turn swept it forward to Alexis. Giroud made an intelligent run towards the near post to grab the attention of the defenders, leaving Mesut Ozil with space to ghost into and head home the Chilean’s perfect cross.
Having provided the assist for the opening, Alexis got himself on the score sheet before half time as he was the beneficiary of good work on the left from Nacho Monreal. The full-back won the ball on the edge of the Zagreb penalty area, burst towards the by-line and cut the ball back for Alexis to slot into the net. Having not hit the net since the 17th of October, it was good to see him convert a chance and get some confidence flowing back.
Alexis is hardly a man who is short on confidence, but he hasn’t looking as sharp in front of goal recently, and before scoring in the game against Zagreb, had dallied when set up with a presentable chance in the penalty area.
The Chilean took that confidence into the second half and looked even hungrier than usual to get on the ball and make something happen. He doubled his tally for the evening by rounding the goalkeeping and firing into the empty net following Joel Campbell’s excellent reverse through ball. There was even a piece of outrageous control with his back that showed how the Chilean was feeling back towards his best.
There have been glimpses in the past of Arsenal’s two superstars, Ozil and Alexis, gaining an understanding with each other, but it has taken time to develop because of the German missing plenty of game time last season with injury. Now that the two have had a longer run of matches in the team together, things do seem to have clicked between them. The way the duo took down Manchester United along with Theo Walcott was impressive, and they linked up brilliantly against Zagreb, making the difference in a match Arsenal had to win.
Alongside Ozil and Alexis, Joel Campbell had a positive game on the right of the front three. The Costa Rican needed to after a frankly abysmal miss at West Brom on Saturday, and with Aaron Ramsey back in the frame and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain soon to return, he had to make a positive impression to maintain a place in the team. He got a good assist for the third goal and contributed well throughout the game. There is still a reluctance among some of the players to play the ball to Campbell regularly, even if he is in space, but when other options as usually Ozil or Alexis, it’s not surprising that he is down on the priority list of who to pass to.
Mathieu Flamini had a solid enough match in central midfield alongside Santi Cazorla, and he’ll need to continue to perform well with Francis Coquelin’s absence confirmed to be around three months. The return of Aaron Ramsey is timely, and although he’s not inclined to be a holding midfielder, could be used back in the centre of the pitch with Coquelin out. Against teams who are likely to pack the midfield and sit quite deep, having that extra ball-playing option, and someone who can burst into the box from deep, could be useful.
The 3-0 win, coupled with Olympiacos’ 4-0 defeat, means that Arsenal have to win by two goals against the Greeks on the final matchday, but only if they don’t win by scoring at least three goals. Because of now having a better goal difference than Olympiacos, should Arsenal win 3-2, they’d go through because the head-to-head would be level, and Arsenal’s goal difference would be enough.
The worst place Arsenal can finish is third, so qualifying in the final game is the only way of avoiding the Europa League. It could be a tense final day, but following the first two matches, and the 5-1 hammering by Bayern, at least Arsenal have matters in their own hands and aren’t relying on results from others to help secure qualification. Arsenal have righted the wrongs of the earlier defeat to Dinamo Zagreb, now they must do the same against Olympiacos.