I’ve seen three different first team Campbell’s in my time as an Arsenal supporter. Kevin was a decent forward, Sol was an immense centre half and now Joel, who I will admit I have been a clear sceptic of in the past, has stepped up in an important game and maybe what Arsène ‘smelt’ in him was not his unwashed lucky jock-strap he’s been reusing since the 2014 World Cup.
Yesterday was, by all accounts, a great day for Arsenal. The task set before the team was to win – and win handsomely – against an Olympiakos team with a very partisan crowd and a clear advantage in that a one goal defeat might have even been enough for them. In contrast, Arsenal had it all to do, with an injury list which hardly helped matters.
Yet the players have trodden this Championd League ground before. We can all bemoan the recent exits in the knockout stages over the last few years – perhaps for another day – but this Arsenal team knows how to get out of the group stages. That’s for sure.
The night started a little shaky though and I have to admit, after 20 minutes, I was wondering whether we’d have a repeat of lacklustre performances like West Ham at home or Brom away, but after an initial flurry from the Greeks, we began to assert ourselves and regain possession a lot better. It’s because technically we are the better side. When you have players like Özil on the field, it shows, because he was a dominant figure in our bu or up play and whilst he didn’t add to his assists last night, the cheeky ‘pre-assist’ was noted with his delicious ball to Monreal for the first goal.
That goal, as well as the timing of that goal, was essential. I have read countless accounts of what George Graham said before Anfield 89 to the players. He spoke of being patient, of not panicking if it is 0-0 at half time and in fact, that was his game plan. Arsène doesn’t set up his team’s with as much caution, but you can tell what the mindset was: be as solid as possible and try to get the first in the first half. We did, and the result was a visibly nervous Olympiakos from that moment onwards, which played in to Arsenal’s hands.
If the first goal was crafted from the left boots of messers Özil and Monreal, the second was all about the quick feet and vision of Campbell, who left the field to a standing ovation last night. It was well deserved. He showed he was ready to be the player Arsène believes he can be and after an initial good run resulted in Flamini hitting the bar, his second half display notched up a good assist to put us in the driving seat. He had started on the left with Theo on the right, but the tactical ‘switcheroo’ worked for both, as Campbell had the beating of the Olympiakos left back for the rest of the evening. It also allowed Theo to cut inside more by playing as a left winger. He looked sharp for somebody making his first start in just under two months and whilst his shooting boots weren’t quite fastened right on the night, he had a decent contribution to the game, right up until his withdrawal. When that came, it was because the job had been done with Monreal winning us a penalty after what I thought (but one or two on Twitter disagreed with me) was a clear handball by the Greek full back. Step forward Olivier Giroud for his hat trick. Well deserved, well played and for a player that thrives on confidence, this will have done wonders.
That’s the other benefit from the game yesterday that I’m hoping to see in the run up to Christmas: confidence. The qualification from the group stages against the odds will do so much for this team. On Sunday they face Villa and with Giroud, Özil, Campbell and Walcott all buoyant from their performance, one can only hope that we have a little extra swagger in our step that wasn’t there in November. If that month was a shocker, I’d be ok with it, providing December is a beaut of a month.
The game also had another chance for Flamini and Ramsey to acclimatise themselves to one-another’s game. At times the space in the middle of the park was scary and Olympiakos had a few too many long, ground-based passes that went straight through our midfield, but our defence was strong enough to ensure that anything that split our midfield was mopped up. Against better opposition that might have been a problem, but Olympiakos were not great and we can all be thankful that we weren’t punished, as it gave both midfielders the chance to dominate the game and put on much better second halves.
Defensively we were untroubled, with Koscienly looking good in particular, plus a smart save from Cech ensured we were in a decent position to win the game and go through. On the basis that all of the players performed well, really well actually, you have to say it was one of the most perfect European nights the team has had. Yes it was a group game, but it was a group game with a knockout feel to it, so perhaps the team are learning to deal with the pressures of European competition.
On Monday we find out who our opponents are going to be and even though we’ll be crossing our fingers for a ‘decent’ draw – whatever that is – ultimately we should just be happy we’re still in it.
Enjoy your day. I know I will.