Arsenal moved within touching distance of a place in the Champions League last 16 with a comfortable 2-0 victory over Marseille at the Emirates. Two goals from Jack Wilshere, the first inside the opening minutes and another midway through the second period clinched a victory that never truly looked in doubt even after Mesut Ozil had a penalty saved late in the first half.
However, with Borussia Dortmund beating Napoli in Group F’s other game, the tightest of sections will go down to the final day. Still, Arsenal remain in prime position to progress, with anything other than defeat by three goals or more away against Napoli sending Arsene Wenger’s side into the knockout phase, regardless of what happens between Dortmund and Marseille.
Having beaten Dortmund in Germany last time out, it would have been a major opportunity wasted had Arsenal then slipped up against a Marseille side that remain without a point in the group. But the French side’s hopeless plight was in full evidence. Coach Elie Baup started with the likes of Mathieu Valbuena and Florian Thauvin on the bench and his side played with a lack of urgency or belief that they would break their duck.
Arsenal to some degree were reduced down to the level of their opponents and only moved up the gears in limited spells. Yet, after events in the opening minute, that was all that was needed.
On a high-pressure night where anything but a win would have been a major unanticipated blow to their hopes of progress, Arsenal got off to the perfect start. From the opening kickoff, Arsenal won back possession and Wilshere was allowed an unopposed run down the right touchline before cutting in, past a lackluster challenge from Lucas Mendes, before curling a shot on his favored left foot into the far top corner. Just 33 seconds were on the clock when the ball crossed the line, making it the fastest goal by an Englishman in Champions League history.
The goal should have been the start of more to come in the opening period. Arsenal were allowed to dominate with little resistance with Marseille’s performance failing to match the intensity of their passionate traveling support.
Wenger will have been disappointed that his side were unable to take advantage profit more by half time. There continued to be an open invitation to attack down Marseille’s left. Minutes after putting Arsenal in front, Wilshere again burst down the flank before this time crossing low for Aaron Ramsey, who should have scored but could only shoot straight against Mandanda.
Ramsey was involved too with Arsenal’s best chance to add to their lead. Arsenal had already had a strong penalty claim turned down when Olivier Giroud was dragged down in the box, before the referee did point to the spot when Ramsey flicked the ball stylishly over the defender on the edge of the box before being tripped by Nicolas N’Koulou. Again the decision was the wrong one from the referee, though, with the contact clearly made outside.
Marseille then will have felt that justice was done when Ozil’s telegraphed penalty was comfortably saved by Mandanda, albeit having moved off his line to do so.
Arsenal stepped up the tempo at the start of the second period and again went close to adding to their slender advantage. Giroud had a shot deflected just wide of the post before Ozil was denied again by Mandanda.
Then in the 65th minute, Arsenal put together their best move of the match to seal the win. Ramsey found Ozil with an inch-perfect pass in behind and the big-money signing squared it first time for Wilshere to finish over Mandanda to double his season’s scoring tally in one evening.
Marseille finally improved after the arrival off the bench of Valbuena and Thauvin, with the latter twice awakening Wojciech Szczesny from his slumber. Still, Arsenal could have finished with an even bigger margin of victory but for their substitutes Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott missing presentable chances. Wenger is unlikely to be concerned, though, as his sides stand on the brink of making it out of the most difficult of this season’s groups.