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Aug 19, 2009

Gunners shoot down unlucky Celtic

Celtic's Champions League dreams hang precariously in the balance following a cruel home defeat at the hands of Arsenal.

The much anticipated Battle of Britain produced an action packed display as the Gunners returned south of the border with precious away goals thanks to their 2-0 victory. But just what went wrong for Bhoys boss Tony Mowbray at Parkhead?

The Hoops were always going to be up against it, especially after the much fancied Londoners crushed Everton in their opening Premiership fixture.

Mowbray, a much respected tactician, knew his side couldn't be expected to bully Arsene Wenger's charges out of the match. Perhaps that was something to do with his thinking as he benched striker Scott McDonald and new recruit Marc-Antoine Fortune. Greek forward Giorgios Samaras, the hero in the last round, was given a lone role in attack.

That saw Celtic go with a five man midfield with diminutive players Shaun Maloney and Aiden McGeady hugging the flanks. The creative pair joined the fit again Scott Brown, Massimo Donati and Landry N'Guemo. Maloney and McGeady did impress in fleeting glimpses but it was the central area where the Celts were out manoeuvred.

Mowbray clearly set up his team to stifle his free flowing opponents and his formation showed the level of respect he has for Wenger's side. But it could be argued he should have played more to his strengths, particularly at home in front of the expectant Celtic crowd.

Those fans have undoubtedly helped their heroes win European games at Parkhead in recent seasons as they create a wall of noise some continental teams just can't cope with. However, this time they had to swallow a rare European defeat at Parkhead as the English side enjoyed a fortunate but commanding victory.

Samaras did a reasonable job of occupying the Arsenal back four and there were occasions when the Scottish side was able to break at pace with purpose. But they never looked in total control of the match, which was bossed by the impressive Cesc Fabregas.

The orders from Mowbray were simple and that was for Brown and Donati to starve the Gunners skipper of time or space to play killer passes. In the early exchanges they did that but the class of Fabregas eventually shone through as he enjoyed the upper hand over Donati.

However, the game plan worked to a certain extent and Celtic never looked like they were going to be picked apart in the manner Everton were.

And it did take a huge slice of good fortune for the English club, who ironically never even fielded an English player in their side, to take the lead.

Celts captain Gary Caldwell was eventually forced to bring down Fabregas and he paid a heavy price for his mistake just a few minutes before the interval.

Robin Van Persie opted to roll the set play to Fabregas who arrowed in a stinging strike that took a wicked deflection off William Gallas before nestling in the Celtic net. The opener was extremely lucky there's no doubt about that and Celtic's run of misfortune continued after the break. Caldwell has certainly suffered a nightmare start to the season following his sending off for Scotland in the crushing defeat away to Norway.

He may have been guilty of some naïve defending while on international duty but was the victim of bad luck in the second half against Arsenal. The central defender stretched to cut out a Gael Clichy ball into the box only to turn the ball past Artur Boruc.

Caldwell's error handed Arsenal a second goal 20 minutes from time which virtually guarantees their passage through to the Champions League group stages. That is unless Mowbray can mastermind a miraculous escape at the Emirates Stadium.

It may be a case of what if for the former West Brom manager. He may well wondering if he should have selected a more attacking formation from the start against Wenger's men.

The Celts gaffer did add more firepower to his team when he sacrificed Donati for McDonald while Fortune also replaced Samaras 10 minutes into the second period.

Maybe their introduction created more space for Arsenal to exploit going forward and in some part contributed to the second goal.

Fortune definitely favoured the visitors but Mowbray admitted his men simply weren't good enough when they were in possession. But he was pleased at the way his team squeezed the play in the opening stages to deny Arsenal the chance to find their rhythm.

Mowbray now knows his side face an almost impossible task of trying to overturn a two goal deficit at the Emirates Stadium.

That first leg defeat will almost certainly force his hand to go with two strikers in London in the faint hope of winning through to the Champions League group stages and generating vital cash for Celtic.

Wenger is a manager with an attacking philosophy and has vowed to try to win the second leg to ensure his side progress. That's going to make Celtic's job even tougher but Mowbray has to find a way of breaking down Arsenal's defence or face dropping into the Europa League.

Maybe next week fortune will favour the brave.

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