Sanchez Throws Arsenal Lifeline With Timely Double

Published: 25th November 2015 07:55 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th November 2015 07:55 AM   |  A+A-

Athens awaits, for Arsene Wenger and his peculiar brand of Champions League brinkmanship, where English football's great survivors must triumph next month against Olympiakos in order that their club's record of having made every second round in the competition since the year 2000 can be preserved.

It will be more than just a win that Arsenal require against the perennial Greek champions; rather they will have to better the 3-2 scoreline by which they lost to Olympiakos when they met in September, although for now they can glory in the prospect of a fightback in keeping with their modern traditions.

Victory over Dinamo Zagreb was a lifeline and it gives Arsenal hope of qualification from a group which, to be honest, should have held no fears in the first place.

Given the confidence that they played with against the Croatian club last night, with a list of injuries that necessitated starts for Mathieu Flamini and Joel Campbell, then they might just do it against Olympiakos on Dec 9 when the hope is that perhaps a couple of the missing will be available again.

This was a night when the big stars, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, scored the critical goals and emphasised the gulf in class while, in Munich, Bayern obligingly swatted aside Olympiakos 4-0 to hold the door open for Arsenal to qualify.

Indeed it was a wonder how Wenger's team ever lost to this extremely mediocre side from Croatia, although it is hardly the first time that one has asked that of the modern-day Arsenal when it comes to more humble opponents. Their date with destiny in Athens falls on the 11th anniversary of that famous occasion that the Greek side came to Anfield in 2004 and, as with Arsenal now, Liverpool required a victory by a two-goal margin that was delivered to them by Steven Gerrard.

On that occasion, Liverpool went on to win the Champions League, an improbable triumph that, though only 10 years ago, still feels like it belongs to a different era.

Much more rare now is the anomalous triumph by a club outside the small elite and, in terms of winning the first European Cup in their history, Arsenal are getting further away rather than closer, yet there is still the tantalising prospect of what this team could achieve were they not bowed down by the weight of injuries.

In the absence of the injured Francis Coquelin, there was a recall for Flamini for his first appearance in this competition and the veteran Frenchman acquitted himself well. There was a half-time appearance on the pitch for the now-retired once marvellously industrious Gilberto Silva, rapturously received and a reminder of the days when Wenger could deploy some real muscle in the centre of his midfield on any given day.

With an opponent content to sit very deep and a lack of pace on the wings of this Arsenal team it felt from early on that this could be the longest of sieges for Wenger's team. Zagreb had something to protect and they had a plan as to how they were going to do it but this time they ran up against a home side who had a sense of purpose about them.

In the playmaker's role, Ozil was exceptional in the first half, driving his team forward and doing his best to plot a way through a thicket of black shirts in front of him.

The early signs were that it would be one of those nights when Arsenal would have to wait a long time for the lapse in concentration in this unusually international Croatian side - four Portuguese among them, only three native Croatians - but in the end it came sooner than expected.

Zagreb started well and perhaps that emboldened them to commit more men forward in the 20th minute than is strictly advisable when you have come to defend against a counter-attacking team as rapid and as intuitive as Arsenal. They broke out beautifully, moving the ball from the right-back position to the left wing, where it came to Sanchez, who cut back on to his right foot and dropped a cross into the six-yard box.

It was perfect for Ozil, who prefers to play with both feet on the floor but nevertheless threw himself head-first at this ball, which was pitched up nicely so that he could head it in and get out of the way of Zagreb's Portuguese goalkeeper, Eduardo, just in time.

The goal punctured Zagreb and, by half-time, Arsenal had another one.

On the left wing, Sanchez had the measure of Zagreb, and early in the move that led to his goal he had already scattered defenders with one run into the heart of the defence, which committed opponents and spread panic. This time he was the beneficiary of a careless pass by Argentine centre-half Leonardo Sigali, who rolled it straight it to the feet of Nacho Monreal as Zagreb struggled to clear the pressure from their own area.

The Spanish left-back drove hard at the byline, drawing a defender and cutting the ball back to Sanchez, who stroked in the second of the game for Arsenal.

Ozil might have had another before half-time when he wriggled through two challenges and an  early attempt by a Zagreb defender to acquire his match shirt before forcing a very good save out of Eduardo.

It was impossible to ignore the empty seats at the Emirates which, given the official number of tickets sold was 58,978, suggested that more than a few had decided against coming.

They emptied quickly before the end too as Arsenal got the job done with a minimum of fuss. Aaron Ramsey was given a second-half run-out as a substitute, his first game since the win over Bayern Munich at home more than a month ago.

There was a second goal from Sanchez after 69 minutes which was made by a beautifully astute pass from Campbell, who cut in from the right and, with barely a glance up, slipped the ball through the Zagreb defence. Sanchez nicked it past Eduardo and struck a fastrising shot past the Zagreb goalkeeper.

The Arsenal man should have had a penalty later when he was brought down by Eduardo as he slipped past him. For now, hope lives on for Wenger and Arsenal.


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