Sometimes in football you just have to get the job done.
Whatever the quality of opposition, status of the game, or surroundings in which you find yourself, you have to find the resources within to ensure you come away with a win. Dundalk was just such an occasion last night.
In the best of times, the Aviva Stadium would have been packed to the brim with raucous football fans from across Ireland – as keen to see the Arsenal stars play as to witness a potential giant killing. The extra zest would have lifted the home side and added a real edge to a game that would, in an ideal world, have had something meaningful on the line.
In the event, it was as dead a rubber as dead rubbers get and not only that, it was played out on a cold, wet night in Dublin, on a tractor-ploughed pitch and in front of the disgruntled groundsmen and his dog.
To that end, there wasn’t much to be gained for Arsenal and, in truth, Dundalk whose domestic season had ended a week previously and who were robbed of the chance to earn some fame and a slice of fortune with the revenue and adulation that packed crowds can bring.
For the most part, Arsenal’s youngsters showed some nice flashes going forward but even that was difficult on a playing surface badly cut up, presumably the legacy of bad weather and recent rugby fixtures.
The real bonus was in the professionalism most showed in sticking to their task and showing the sort of desire and ambition that they will need if they hope to force their way into Mikel Arteta’s plans. That counts as much for the likes of Emile Smith-Rowe and Eddie Nketiah as it does for Callum Chambers and Pablo Mari, the latter of whom will be pleased with more minutes under their belts after lengthy injury absences.
Throughout their careers in football, it is doubtful that anyone who played last night will ever face so inconsequential a match again but it is to their great credit that the majority rose to the occasion and ensured, if only for their own sakes, that they left Ireland with a 4-2 win and with Arsenal’s perfect European winning record in tact.
GOOD GAME/BAD GAME
+3 The qualifying campaign: For the most part, the Gunners have been excellent and produced performances wherever they have gone. They have been solid under pressure and scored plenty of goals too, 20 across the six games by all accounts. Crucial now that they carry that momentum into the next round.
+2 Folarin Balogun: He may only have had half-an-hour but the young man got himself on the scoresheet again and collected an assist to boot. That’s a nice return and does he chances of collecting more minutes in the cup competitions no harm at all. The more we see of him, the more we learn and hopefully he does too. A possible loan in January?
+1 Young Guns: Once again, our young stars pulled us through with their desire and talent. Eddie Nketiah bagged his fifth goal of the season to become our leading goalscorer, Emile Smith-Rowe managed an assist, and Joe Willock was on target again from midfield. These young men have done everything asked of them and are started to reap the rewards they deserve.
0 Mohamed Elneny: As ever, he was busy, energetic and committed for the duration. He capped a solid performance with a wonderful goal from range too which, I’m sure, would have brought a smile to all of our faces. Nice guy and model professional.
-1 Goals conceded: It’s obviously still early days for the likes of Pablo Mari and Callum Chambers following lengthy lay-offs from football and there will be plenty of rust they need to shake off. Hopefully, that will come with minutes. On the night, however, they will be disappointed to have conceded twice to a team that, in truth, is probably League 2 standard.
-2 Alex Runarsson: Although he is perfectly accomplished with the ball at his feet (a big part of the reason he was bought in the first place) his goalkeeping left a lot to be desired and we perhaps saw for the first time why he had slipped to second choice at Dijon last season. His efforts for both goals should have been better, particularly the first. We will need much better from him if we are to protect Bernd Leno from overexposure.
-3 Nicolas Pepe: I get it. It was the ultimate dead rubber. There couldn’t have been less riding on this game if it was switched to a friendly and played at midnight on an island in the middle of the Atlantic. But that’s not the point. This was a chance to get some goals and some confidence ahead of a potential return to the Premier League squad. And while Nicolas was credited with another assist on the night, across the 90 minutes he was lethargic, insipid and, frankly, disinterested. He played as if there was Velcro taped to the bottom of his boots.