Arsenal frustrated by resolute Marseille in Champions League
Champions League: Arsenal 0 Marseille 0
After the goal glut of Stamford Bridge, perhaps it was too much to expect anything other than a damp squib in the Champions League three days later.
Arsenal may have kept a rare and welcome clean sheet to at least dampen down some of their defensive critics, but failure to convert at the other end has left Champions League Group F far from resolved.
Arsenal will entertain Borussia Dortmund, 1-0 winners against Olympiakos tonight, in three weeks’ time knowing that a home win will still be enough to guarantee progress, but they missed a glorious chance to do so a game earlier against an organised but limited Marseille.
Not even the summoning of Robin van Persie from the substitutes bench could break the deadlock, with the Dutchman missing a presentable chance to win the game 13 minutes from time.
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Unlike in the south of France two weeks’ earlier, there was to be no late, late winner for Arsene Wenger’s side, although they still top the group and will be confident of progressing from it.
Wenger had suggested he might stick with the same side that had won at Chlesea, but that was a smokescreen as two of the leading heroes of Stamford Bridge, Van Persie and Laurent Koscielny, were given a rest on the bench.
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Ju-Young Park stepped in for Van Persie up front, while at the back Thomas Vermaelen returned alongside the German Per Mertesacker, and Carl Jenkinson replaced Johan Djourou as he had done for the latter stages at Chelsea.
It seemed a bit of a gamble from Wenger given that the margins in Group F are still very tight, and Marseille started with genuine intent with the pacy Jordan Ayew almost giving them the lead with a close-range flick early on.
Arsenal grew in composure and Andre Santos carried on in the attacking vein he had shown at Stamford Bridge by crossing for Aaron Ramsey to volley over at the far post for Arsenal’s best chance of the opening quarter.
The Gunners really should have taken the lead on the half-hour mark, when Gervinho first saw his shot beaten away by Steve Mandanda, and then Park was a little slow to convert the rebound.
Moments later Gervinho threaded a pass through to Ramsey, who elected to shoot rather than pass to the overlapping Walcott and saw his effort blocked.
Ramsey was Arsenal’s most impressive player, with another surging run after a clever flick from Park being ended by a crude tackle from Alou Diarra that earned the Frenchman the game’s first yellow card four minutes before the break.
But Mikel Arteta curled the resulting free-kick limply wide and that pretty much summed up the first half of an encounter that desperately lacked spark.
The second half started in the same vein but once Marseille began to show some adventure the Emirates crowd began to wonder when and if the explosive Van Persie on the bench.
The answer came on the hour mark when Arsenal’s free-scoring captain came on for Park, who had been a willing but limited and supply-starved lone striker.
The tricky Mathieu Valbuena was starting to have a growing influence for the French side and a couple of crosses flashed dangerously across Wojciech Szczesny’s goal. The warning signs were there.
Wenger made a second change with Tomas Rosicky coming on for a tired-looking Ramsey. While Wenger’s squad rotation has been proved correct of late, it was a surprise to see all three of the central midfielders who had gone the extra yard at Chelsea start again three days later. Rosicky, like Andrey Arshavin and Yossi Benayoun, must have expected to be more involved.
Nevertheless with 20 minutes to go the game was there to be won, and Arsenal knew another late winning goal like the one they had conjured up in France would put one foot in the knockout stages.
Valbuena limped off to be replaced by Lucho Gonzalez, the Argentinian former Porto player who Wenger admitted he had been interested in signing in the summer.
Wenger made his final substitution by introducing Arshavin for Gervinho with 13 minutes to go, and finally Arsenal seemed to have the attacking personnel on the field to really hurt Marseille.
Immediately Rosicky released Van Persie with a superbly weighted pass but the Dutch striker showed he is fallible after all with a poorly executed chip into the arms of Mandanda.
Frustration was starting to envelop the Emirates as a capacity crowd sensed the reality of a run of seven consecutive home wins coming to an end.
A Van Persie free-kick was a prelude to a late scramble, but in truth this was a game as desperately poor as Saturday’s goal-fest at Chelsea had been remarkable.
Arsenal fans left knowing that they can’t expect fireworks every week, and an unbeaten run that now extends to six matches gives encouragement, the Emirates hordes will be hoping for a marked improvement against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday.
Arsenal: Szczesny, Jenkinson, Vermaelen, Mertesacker, Andre Santos, Song, Ramsey (Rosicky, 66), Arteta, Walcott, Gervinho (Arshavin, 77), Park (Van Persie, 61).
Subs not used: Fabianski, Koscielny, Djourou, Benayoun.
Marseille: Mandanda, Fanni, Diarra, N’Koulou, Morel, Diawara, Andre Ayew, Valbuena (Gonzalez, 73), Cheyrou, Jordan Ayew, Remy (Amalfitano, 68).
Subs not used: Bracigliano, Azpilicueta, Gignac, Kabore, Traore.
Referee: Paolo Tagliavento (Italy)
Att: 59, 961