I have to admit, when I saw the starting line-up for tonight’s game, I sighed. Wenger’s decision to start Ospina over Cech seemed to be the greatest cause for debate among the pundits on TV. Personally, the exclusion of £35+m signing, Granit Xhaka was far more baffling. Wenger has been a vehement champion of Ospina since he joined the club, insisting he has ‘two world-class keepers’. Coquelin, however, has been inconsistent this season and last. Before improving in the second, was poor in the first half against Southampton. What Xhaka has shown in an Arsenal shirt so far has only enhanced the feeling that he might offer what Arsenal have lacked in midfield for a decade. As the teams came out, the quiet confidence I’d had all day was undoubtedly damaged – but then they lined up and the Champions League music started and I got all excited again.
I’d barely made a dent in my sofa when Serge Aurier, in space on the right, played in a wonderful cross to find a wide-open Edinson Cavani right in front of Arsenal’s goal. His flicked header gave Ospina no chance. Arsenal were a goal down less than a minute into their Champions League campaign. Shkodran Mustafi was caught woefully neglectful. Perhaps he was still humming the Champions League music to himself. I know I was.
PSG came out much the sharper. Arsenal looked familiarly overawed. Wenger’s men have started their previous two European campaigns with defeats and it looked as if it was happening again.
After the goal and a frantic few minutes, the game settled down and so did Arsenal. Without creating any great chances, they were keeping the ball and moving it forward. For a time, they actually looked relatively comfortable, though the goal had given permission for PSG to sit back.
As so often is the case when he is deployed in a central striking position, Alexis Sanchez looked isolated. Too often he was forced to drift deep or wide left to collect the ball, which wouldn’t have mattered so much if Oxlade-Chamberlain, on the right was the type to run into central channels well. He is not and even when he did, he was comfortably being marked out of the game. As the half went on, Matuidi, Rabiot and Veratti were beginning to see more of the ball than Coquelin, Ozil and Cazorla.
Cavani’s movement was causing all kinds of trouble for Koscielny and Mustafi. Twice before the half ended he found himself in positions from which he really should have added to his tally. Thankfully for Arsenal, he was continuing to play with the indifferent finishing form he’s started the French domestic season with. At half-time, the Arsenal players would probably have been feeling fortunate to only be trailing by one.
Arsenal started the second half with energy, but still lacked the strength and stability in midfield that the Parisians were playing with. The balance was clearly wrong and PSG were finding it easy to repeatedly soak up futile Arsenal pressure and break back to good effect. Di Maria was moving well off the ball and saw a half-hearted penalty claim waved away by the referee.
Coquelin is a player who needs to play alongside a more creative player; today Cazorla. When he’s found in positions high up the field, it shows and he simply wasn’t displaying the composure or vision on the ball needed against such strong opposition. Matuidi meanwhile was winning the ball back and offloading it regularly and impeccably, in a vein much more familiar to a certain legendary French Arsenal midfielder.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was also noticeably off the pace, on several occasions misplacing passes and then being slow to react once he had. When the change came and Olivier Giroud replaced him, not one fan watching would have had any complaints. I applauded. The lad just has to improve and quickly, both for his short term stake in the first team and his long-term career at Arsenal.
The change had an instant effect. Sanchez was moved to the left and within seconds looked visibly more at home. He was able to cut in from wide positions and see other Arsenal shirts in good positions. As a result, the game looked much more evenly balanced. PSG though, were still creating chances. Cavani’s movement was still impressive. His finishing still wasn’t. Di Maria also had chances saved. Had he or Cavani found their shooting boots tonight, Arsenal could have been three or four behind and beaten in an hour. David Ospina was doing well to justify his place in the side. On a number of occasions, he was called upon to spare Arsenal’s blushes – once, admittedly through his own doing.
The pairing of Mustafi and Koscielny clearly has some growing to do. After all, this is their second game together. I can’t help but imagine whether they would have been gelling by now had the fee for Mustafi been agreed at an earlier date. At the other end of the field, Arsenal were looking far more effective. Granit Xhaka was – at last – brought on with 20 minutes remaining. Alex Iwobi, I felt was having a good game and the reshuffled line-up allowed him to move more freely. His movement is that of a natural forward and it was his ability to drift into the box unmarked that drew a world-class delivery from the left from Mesüt Özil, who’d also started to grow into the game after a shaky first half. Iwobi’s shot was hit well, but too centrally. Areola saved, but the late arriving Sanchez struck the rebound into the bottom corner. Alexis had been moved to his preferred position and immediately improved. Crazy.
After the equaliser the game continued to stretch and with about 10 minutes left, Iwobi again earned himself a good scoring opportunity. Once more running in behind Sanchez – again, why did Arsenal not start this way? His placed shot was too tame and saved well down low by Areola, who like his Arsenal counterpart, was having a good game.
Olivier Giroud has developed a somewhat fractured relationship with French fans over the years and that was in evidence again tonight. He was gesticulating at every decision against him and as a result got himself booked. In stoppage time, he and Veratti collided and some unsavoury scenes broke out. Just what exactly happened to warrant both Giroud and Veratti being sent off is unclear, but just as Giroud had come on with a great deal of passion, he left the field because of it. The game ended, both teams with one goal and ten men.
To their credit, Arsenal clung onto a single-goal deficit for almost 80 minutes and hit back when they got their chance. They stayed in the game in a very tough atmosphere against a fantastic side. On reflection, a point away to the French Champions – given Arsenal’s quite ordinary performance and the amount of gilt-edged chances missed by Cavani – might seem like a very good point.
Player ratings: Ospina 8, Bellerin 6, Mustafi 5, Koscielny 5, Monreal 6, Coquelin 5, Cazorla 6, Ozil 7, Oxlade-Chamberlain 5, Iwobi 7, Alexis 7, Giroud 5, Xhaka 6, Elneny 6.