Arsenal will take a two-goal advantage home to the Emirates Stadium for next week’s second leg of its Champions League qualifier with Celtic, thanks to a 2-0 win over the Scottish giants at Parkhead on Tuesday night.
After scoring some wonderfully attractive goals in the 6-1 romp over Everton Saturday, Arsenal’s tallies in this European tie were far from beautiful. The first goal came just before the half, when a Cesc Fabregas free kick took a wild deflection off the back of William Gallas and ended up in the corner of the net. The Gunners’ other goal was courtesy of Celtic defender Gary Caldwell, whose stretch to block a dangerous Gael Clichy cross could only divert the ball into his own net.
Some viewers might consider the result a bit lucky for Arsenal, who did benefit from some fortunate breaks on both goals. But if either team looked more likely to secure a lead from this first leg it was the visiting Gunners, who now seemingly have one foot in the Champions League group stage with the road win, which represents the first victory in a European tie by an England side at Celtic Park in more than 25 years (since Nottingham Forest in 1983).
“We have a good advantage but it’s 180 minutes; we’re ahead after 90,” said manager Arsene Wenger in the post-match press conference. “When you want to go through you want to play well for 180 – that’s our purpose. Even with an advantage of two goals we want to finish the job at home.”
Admitting that the match was a fierce battle within a tough setting, Wenger added: “I felt collectively we dominated the game, but Celtic were always willing, fighting and counter-attacking. In the end, despite being in control, we scored two lucky goals. It was a big fight tonight and we needed a strong Arsenal side to win the game. The crowd and players were absolutely up for it and I believe with an average performance we would not have won the game today.”
While Celtic manager Tony Mowbray felt the nature of the goals was very disappointing for his side, he told Sky Sports: “But you can’t take it away – Arsenal were very good on the night, exceptional with the ball but brilliant without the ball.
“We struggled to pass the ball against very high pressure and I think Arsenal really gave us a lesson with the ball and without the ball,” added Mowbray.
That heightened pressure and slight formation change employed by Wenger’s side this season has proven very effective, even if none of the front three (of Robin van Persie, Andrey Arshavin and Nicklas Bentdner) have yet to score a goal in these first two games. Each has been effective in creating chances for themselves and for teammates.
Instead, the goals have been coming from the midfielders and defenders, areas considered to be weak spots by various pundits in their pre-season predictions. But more impressive than the goals from these positions has been the defensive roles performed by these players, with Alex Song and Thomas Vermaelen particular standouts in Arsenal’s opening fixtures.
New boy Vermaelen again looked strong and confident in the center of defense versus Celtic, and his pairing with Gallas already seems solid. Song, maligned in the past as not being up to the standards required for title contenders, displayed strength in the defensive/holding role in the middle of the park, consistently breaking up the attacks of the Scottish opponents.
Fellow midfielders Fabregas and Denilson, who were both mentioned as doubts a day before the match, each played the full 90 minutes in effective fashion. One benefit the two-goal advantage could offer to Arsenal is the opportunity for Wenger to sit out one of the hard-working midfield trio in the second leg next week, to have them fully rested for the Premiership match at Manchester United the following Saturday.
As the two-legged Champions League playoff falls within a demanding opening-month schedule for the Gunners, the 2-0 away scoreline is ideal. For it now forces Celtic to score at least two goals at The Emirates to even have a chance at overcoming Arsenal, and it also takes some pressure off next Wednesday’s return date, allowing Wenger to juggle his personnel to set things up to his liking in preparation for the massive league encounter at Old Trafford.
One more advantage that last night’s result may bring is an additional signing or two for Arsenal by the end of this summer’s transfer window. I am among those who believe that Wenger and Ivan Gazidis were hesitant to spend the cash taken in from the Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure transfers before being certain that the team had qualified for the Champions League group stages.
With participation in Europe’s top club competition — and the money it brings in for a club — not yet totally assured with the 2-0 win at Celtic, the Gunners do look a solid bet to make the group stage and therefore profit from some of the massive Champions league revenues for yet another season.
So, after the bulk of the summer without any incoming player since June, perhaps we will now see more focused attempts at bringing in that additional defender or hard-type midfielder that pundits and supporters alike believe is required for Arsenal to seriously challenge for trophies this season.
We’ll know soon enough, as the transfer deadline is less than two weeks away. Judging by the impressive way the Gunners have been performing on the pitch lately, maybe that one additional piece to the puzzle will be all that’s needed for Arsenal to capture some long-awaited silverware in the 2009-10 campaign.