Arsenal took a major step toward qualifying for the Champions League knockout phase with a supremely solid 1-0 road victory over Borussia Dortmund in the Westfalenstadion. Having posed no threat to the Dortmund goal for an hour and, just as the hosts were beginning to gain real ascendency, Aaron Ramsey headed in from six yards. Manager Arsene Wenger will have been delighted with the mature way in which his side subsequently saw the game out as his orchestra silenced the heavy metal of opposite number Jurgen Klopp.
After conceding a late winner when the two sides met in London two weeks ago, this was a massive result for the Premier League leaders. In a tight three-way battle for qualification, Arsenal now sit top of the group on nine points and above Napoli on goal difference. A win at home to a Marseille side who are still without a point in three weeks time could be enough to send them through with a game to spare. That will not be the case, though, if Dortmund get the victory that that now surely need at home to Napoli. Still on six points, last season’s Champions League finalists now have no margin for error if they are to avoid an early exit this time around.
An away victory had looked an unlikely prospect at the start of the night. A combination of Dortmund’s pressing and Arsenal’s cautiousness meant that the visitors made virtually no inroads going forward in the first half. Indeed, they failed to produce a single shot at goal in the opening 45 minutes. For the most part, though, they were doing a good job of restricting Dortmund going forward.
When the German side did get their lightning counters going, it was Arsenal’s left that they targeted. Jakub Blaszczykowski hooked a shot over before setting up a clear chance from which Dortmund should have taken the lead. After play had been allowed to go on following an Arsenal foul as they tried desperately to get back into position, the Polish midfielder laid the ball inside for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who should have found the back of the net but instead struck his side-footed effort wide of the target.
Still, Klopp will have been demanding even more intensity from his side at the break and he got it at the start of the second half. Arsenal were struggling to cope with the wave of yellow shorts that swarmed forward as they clung onto parity.
Wojciech Szczesny was at full stretch to push Marco Reus’ header past the post, while also keeping out Blaszczykowski when he had a clear sight of goal. Reus did have the ball in the net from the rebound, but was rightly flagged for offside.
Completely against the run of play, Arsenal struck with a classic sucker punch in the 62nd minute. Dortmund conceded possession right back to Arsenal on the edge of their own box and Arsenal took full advantage. From Ozil’s chipped cross into the box, the previously anonymous Olivier Giroud just got enough of his head to the ball to keep the play alive and Ramsey once more was in the right place at the right time to head past Roman Weidenfeller from close range.
A goal at either end was always liable to turn the simmering match into a boiling cauldron and so it initially proved. Reus spurned a glorious chance when a wild swing of his boot at a low Robert Lewandowski cross saw him miss the ball completely. Straight up the other end, Giroud and Ramsey combined once more but the Welshman this time had his shot saved. From the resulting corner, Giroud’s effort was cleared off the line as players and fans alike tried to catch their breath.
To Arsenal’s enormous credit, they were able to dampen the end-to-end action and impose their authority on proceedings. Going a goal up had sent belief coursing through Arsenal’s veins and they controlled possession with great calmness. It was a composed, professional display for a side with a lead away from home and one in contrast to what has often been produced from Arsenal teams in recent seasons.
With Arsenal not allowing Dortmund the gaps in which to break, the hosts lacked the possession and the ingenuity to break the opposition down. Helped by another almost faultless showing from Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny at the heart of their defense, Arsenal held out to become the first English team to win in the Westfalenstadion and provide great encouragement for what can be achieved at the Emirates this season.
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.