Arsenal comes from behind to beat Standard Liège  

Thursday, 17 September 2009

LONDON: A giant banner greeted Arsenal on Wednesday night with a simple but imposing message from the ‘Ultras’ of Standard Liège. “Vendetta”, it simply read.

Most of this Arsenal young team probably had little idea what it meant, but the home supporters were determined to ensure their team clearly understood the humiliation that Arsenal had inflicted with a 7-0 victory on their previous visit to this part of Belgium some 16 years ago.

Having taken a 2-0 lead inside five extraordinary minutes, Standard were poised for redemption, but the script was ultimately written for Eduardo – a player who had not even been expected to play following the two-game Uefa ban – to complete the most unlikely of comebacks with the winner in a remarkable 3-2 victory.

Amid all the recent controversy regarding Eduardo’s alleged dive and Emmanuel Adebayor’s antics at Eastlands, the actual football – and specifically Arsenal’s two consecutive defeats in Manchester - was in danger of being forgotten. Not here, although even in victory, Arsenal again looked highly vulnerable in defence and have now managed just one clean sheet in seven matches this season. Familiar problems persist.

Manager Arsène Wenger had suggested at the end of last season that he would add defensive steel and experience to the squad, yet his response was to simply sign a 23-year-old Thomas Vermaelen and allow Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Adebayor, two of his senior players, to leave.

While Eduardo started after having his two-match Uefa ban overturned, the involvement of Standard’s Axel Witsel was equally contentious. Witsel, a Belgium international team-mate of Thomas Vermaelen, has been suspended domestically for eight games after a horror challenge had inflicted a double fracture on the leg of Anderlecht’s Marcin Wasilewski but was cleared to play in Europe.

With Witsel excellent in midfield, Liège’s collective motivation for their first ever appearance in the Champions League was immediately obvious and overwhelming. Upon walking around the old-fashioned and compact Stade Maurice Dufrasne on Tuesday night, Wenger had noted to the Belgium media that he anticipated what he called a “chaud” atmosphere. He was not wrong.

The stadium was like an inferno as the two teams emerged and there was little doubt which side were the most fired up.

While the Standard players were flying into every challenge, Arsenal looked strangely nervous and individual mistakes were quickly forthcoming. Eduardo inexplicably conceded possession after just two minutes, with Eliaquim Mangala gratefully pouncing to shoot beyond Mannone from the edge of the penalty area. Arsenal looked shell-shocked and their lethargic re-start was instantly punished. Milan Jovanovic surged in front of William Gallas, who seemed to stumble and glance the Serbia international's heels.

Referee Eduardo González was satisfied that there had been contact and pointed to the penalty spot, with Jovanovic sending Mannone the wrong way.

Above the 2-0 scoreline on the stadium’s giant television screen was a time of just 4mins 1secs.

The squad that Wenger exudes such faith in was being badly exposed. In mitigation, eight potential first-teamers are currently injured, prompting Wenger to include five teenagers among his seven substitutes. The most surprising selection was the preference for Emmanuel Eboué above Bacary Sagna at right-back, although most heart-warming was the inclusion of Tomas Rosicky for his first club start since he lasted just nine minutes of the 3-0 win against Newcastle on Jan 26, 2008. You would have to go back even further – 22 months to be precise – for his previous Champions League match.

At the time of the injury, Wenger had diagnosed the problem as “strange” rather than serious. It proved both and Rosicky, who had two operations and spent an entire year troubled by constant pain, has since admitted that he feared his career was finished.

The man nicknamed ‘The Little Mozart’ has been missed. His guile, trickery and goal-scoring threat are obvious but, of greatest importance in such a young squad, is his stature and experience. Here he played to the right of Wenger’s fluid 4-2-3-1 formation and it was his influence that gradually gave Arsenal a foothold in the game.

Increasingly they assumed a stranglehold of possession and, on the stroke of half-time, created a lifeline when Abou Diaby span quickly to elude Mangala.

He then fed Nicklas Bendtner, who calmly guided the ball beyond Standard goalkeeper Sinan Bolat.

Arsenal, though, showed they had learned little from the opening 45 minutes when they almost gifted Standard another goal at the beginning of the second-half. Alex Song failed to find Gallas with what should have been a simple pass, allowing Dieudonné Mbokani a clear sight of goal, although his scuffed shot was blocked by Gaël Clichy.

Standard, though, were generally dropping deeper and deeper, with only a last-gasp challenge from Mangala denying Bendtner. An equaliser was becoming inevitable and it arrived in the 78th minute after Vermaelen, on returning to his native Belgium, converted a goal-mouth scramble. Replays suggestedthat at least one Arsenal player was in an offside position, while Song also appeared to handle the ball.

Standard were now utterly deflated and, from a Cesc Fàbregas corner, the ball then rebounded off Eduardo’s knee and beyond Bolat to give Arsenal the most uplifting yet unconvincing of victories.


Design by