Arsenal avoided a third straight road loss by coming from two goals behind to defeat Standard Liege 3-2 in the opening group stage match of this season’s Champions League campaign on Wednesday.
Hoping to steady the ship after back-to-back Premiership losses in Manchester, the Gunners only made things tougher on themselves with a couple of early mistakes that had Standard Liege 2-0 up less than five minutes into the game at Maurice Dufrasne Stadium in Belgium.
With the home supporters in a frenzy before the match — the first-ever CL group stage appearance for their team — even they were surprised by the shocking developments in the opening moments. After Eduardo da Silva failed to clear a corner for the hosts two minutes in, Eliaquim Mangala collected at the edge of the area and fired one past Vito Mannone, the young keeper starting only his second first-string game for Arsenal.
The 21-year-old Italian keeper’s next touch of the ball was again to pick it out of the net, courtesy of a penalty struck by Milan Jovanovic. The Standard striker converted from the spot in the fifth minute after referee Eduardo Gonzalez ruled that he was clipped in the box and brought down by William Gallas.
Caught cold in the initial European encounter, the Gunners continued to struggle throughout the first half, as their vaunted passing game failed to take hold. While beginning to control possession, Arsenal had few solid chances on goal until the last minute of the half.
Abou Diaby’s surging run in minute 45 led to a fine goal from Nicklas Bendtner, who slotted the ball past Sinan Bolat and cut the lead in half, giving Arsenal hope for the second half.
The second period almost began like the first, as a blunder by Alex Song gave Standard a chance in the first minute only for a Gael Clichy tackle to thwart the opportunity. Seconds later, Tomas Rosicky almost played Bentdner in for an equalizing chance but the Dane was stopped by a perfectly-timed challenge from Mangala.
Arsenal soon gained control, with the home side content to retreat and look for chances on the counter. Although the visitors’ pressure didn’t lead to many chances, the Gunners were beginning to wear down the Standard defense.
Aaron Ramsey replaced Rosicky just before the 70-minute mark, and just as two more substitutes were set to be inserted nine minutes later, Arsenal levelled the match from a free kick. A goalmouth scramble off a floater from Fabregas saw Thomas Vermaelen bundle home after a touch from Song, who could have been ruled offside on the play.
But the goal was allowed, and with Standard’s players looking a bit deflated, the Gunners continued to pressure for the game-winning goal. The next few minutes saw an Eduardo strike saved superbly by Bolat, while a Vermaelen effort from a corner was cleared off the line by a defender.
Another Arsenal corner (in the 83rd minute) did produce the deciding goal, with the Gunner’s third tally coming off the knee of Eduardo, who was only allowed to play when UEFA annulled its two-game ban of the Croation one day prior to the match.
The visitors then held on in the closing minutes for the spirited 3-2 comeback win, ending the losing streak while opening its Champions League campaign in winning fashion. And while the match again exposed some weaknesses of Arsene Wenger’s young side, it also perhaps answered a few critics who have argued that this current Arsenal team can no longer grind out results when not at their best.
Wenger believes the dramatic win will boost the spirit of the squad, telling reporters after the match: “I believe it was important. When you are at a big club, you cannot afford to have too many defeats on the trot. It was important to respond, after being 2-0 down. This will strengthen belief within the camp.”
“We know that inside we are strong enough to turn games like this, and that is what we proved in Liege,” added Tomas Rosicky, who started his first match in a year-and-a-half for the Gunners. “We knew that after the two defeats in Manchester, we needed a result.”
After the long spell on the sidelines, the Czech midfielder admitted in an interview (featured on ESPN’s soccernet.com) that he is not yet in peak form. “I am not anywhere near my best, and still have plenty of room to improve. I will get better.
“I am fired up to win a trophy and enjoying being back. It is good that I can be part of this team back again,” continued Rosicky. “Offensively we are very strong and I can help with that.”
The strong, flowing offensive attack is certainly evident at Arsenal, yet some critics still argue the North London side need an improvement in defensive steel along with an added mentality to “win ugly” at times to be considered true challengers for trophies this season.
Wednesday’s initial Champions League match was certainly one in which the Gunners prevailed when not at their best, suggesting that winning mentality could emerge at Arsenal in the team’s quest for domestic and European honors this 2009-10 season.