A quite remarkable turn of events on Tuesday night saw Paris Saint-Germain pull off a better impression of Arsenal than the Gunners are capable of themselves.
Needing only to steer themselves past Ludogorets to guarantee top spot, PSG contrived to blunder their way to a draw in front of their home fans, thereby ceding first place to Arsenal, who spanked Basel 4-1 in Switzerland.
It is the sort of folly Arsenal fans are used to seeing from their own side on the big occasions in recent years, so it was a refreshing change to see someone else’s team implode in quite such spectacular fashion.
Ludogorets came in for quite a lot of criticism during the course of this group stage campaign, famously dismissed as ‘farmers’ by many fans, but – going forward at least – they displayed a cohesive nature that belied that tag, so congratulations to them.
In securing the draw, they did Arsenal an enormous favour and it was very gratefully received. I think even the most optimistic Gunners fan would have had doubts over this outcome a few weeks ago.
As to Arsenal’s performance against the perennial Swiss champions, they were, yet again, superbly efficient in attack. We have found a way of converting our chances with devastating regularity this season, the type of ruthlessness we simply have not had for many years.
A midfield featuring Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka was tidy and progressive, and the whole team press – particularly in the first half – was excellent.
For me, I thought we rode our luck somewhat in defence. I though Basel wasted some really quite presentable opportunities, which could have ramped up the pressure on us somewhat. But, as it transpired, they spurned them, and spared the blushes of a still-developing Rob Holding and an out-of-sorts Laurent Koscielney.
That said, David Ospina was beaten only once on the night and the job was well and truly done against a side that has a reputation for punishing English sides in European competition.
A hat tip must also go to Lucas Perez, who put on a masterclass in getting himself into the right areas to get on the end of crosses and cut backs, while also taking the chance to finish neatly from just inside the area for his third. A well-deserved, and well-constructed, hat-trick.
The real bonus about his performance was the options it gives Arsenal in attack, the sort of options we have not had for a good while. We have Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud, Perez, and Theo Walcott, all capable of playing up top and scoring important goals. That’s genuine squad depth, and Arsene Wenger has used his squad wisely and to good effect for the most part this season.
I must say I was surprised to see Sanchez and Mesut Ozil on the team sheet before the game but the decision has proven to be a very astute one from Arsene. Had he left the duo at home and we missed the opportunity to top the group, he would have been pilloried. He always walks a fine line and, on this occasion, he was absolutely spot-on.
The draw for the next round of the Champions League takes place on Monday and, like most fans, I expect we will pull Real Madrid or Bayern Munich out of the hat. If that’s the case, so be it, at least we can say we gave ourselves the best possible opportunity by topping the group.
Arsene comes in for his fair share of criticism from fans but this is one occasion he must be praised – and rightly so. If man of the match could go to the manager, I feel as though he might have just sneaked it last night.