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Sep 28, 2011

Anxious Arsenal's doubts persist

Anxiety is a difficult emotion to mask, and Arsenal cannot hide theirs. The uncertainty of a torrid start to the season, as a new team is foundered and an old formula is no longer as effective as it once was, means that the calm of consolidation would almost feel like victory in itself once 2011-12 is done. A clear sense of direction would help. It waits in abeyance.

Arsenal's aim this season, and every season, should Stan Kroenke care to publicly admit it, is the securing of a Champions League place. Beyond that, playing in this competition itself is a bonus, and factored as such in a financial sense too. Reaching the final (as in 2006) looks way beyond the current crop and when Arsene Wenger does take his leave, that balmy Paris evening will be remembered as the night that the club's French revolution began to lose its way and a slow decline began.

Five years on, Arsenal are fighting relegation from the competition that secures the status of a modern-day superclub. They cannot afford not to be in the Champions League. In that regard, a weekend derby with Tottenham Hotspur already has the look of a six-pointer, since Spurs are again capable of challenging for a fourth spot on which hopes already rest. Like any club facing an unthinkable and unpalatable demotion, what Arsenal need to rescue them is unity and belief. Yet such qualities are ebbing at the Emirates and while victory against Olympiakos continued a week of three wins in a row, doubt still casts a long shadow.

There had been an atmosphere of defiance. 'Getting behind the lads' can make football a participation sport, and a new Arsenal needs the fans to carry them over the lines. Yet those fans have about as much faith in their defence as the rest of the EU does in the Greek economy. Rage set in once David Fuster had risen unmarked to head Olympiakos back into the contest.

Goals from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Andre Santos, both scoring their first for Arsenal, had rendered visions of a bright future, yet Fuster's goal had pricked that bubble of optimism.

Arsene Wenger recently scoffed at talk of a defensive coach. Loyal assistant Pat Rice was once a full-back of distinction yet this Arsenal team do not offer the steadiness he once supplied. All four of Wenger's defensive selection can 'play' yet none of them seem cut out for the type of dirty work that security requires. Rice, standing in for Wenger post-match, was critical of a goal that looked all too familiar. "From a defender's point of view it was really poor," he admitted.

As Manchester United proved the previous evening, an unfamiliar back four is rarely a solid one, and a shaky Bacary Sagna found himself as the senior partner alongside two new boys and converted midfielder Alex Song. Meanwhile, Santos looks like the converted winger he is. His goal, scored off his right foot, was an exercise in adventure, but his defending is too often statuesque. When Vasilis Torosidis rattled the crossbar from distance on the hour, he was offered the freedom of Hornsey in which to take aim from the Gunners' left flank.

And for all his excellence as a shot-stopper Wojciech Szczesny is yet to gain the command of a defence that a more experienced goalkeeper might offer. To give him his due, he is yet to play with an Arsenal defensive organiser with the charisma of leadership. Indeed, Arsenal have not possessed that since Sol Campbell's half-time flit at Upton Park in February 2006; a series of budget-priced defenders have arrived, failed and fled.

The likes of William Gallas, Mikael Silvestre and Sebastien Squillaci have been the experienced hands brought in, yet none added authority. Per Mertesacker must be given more time for a full assessment, yet has arrived at a time of flux and may yet be a victim of circumstance. The signs here were that he possesses poise and is better suited to a European occasion than his recent torrid lunchtime at Ewood Park.

"We lost our way but came back into it. We had to knuckle in, to get our shape right," said Rice and it was true that the visitors were eventually reduced to pot shots where once they had been offered a clear sight of goal. Here, Mertesacker grew into the game and showed that he could take responsibility.

It was with Saturday in mind that current on-field leader Robin van Persie was rested until the 71st minute and he entered the fray to a rousing reception, with the fans keen to show their love for a player already linked with the type of painful departure they have endured from the likes of Henry, Flamini, Hleb, Cesc and Nasri. Plaintive proclamations of love alone will not keep him at the club. Ambition, both in playing and pecuniary terms, will need to be matched.

Currently, he is surrounded by too many team-mates of either unreached potential or diminishing returns. While both Oxlade-Chamberlain and Santos were scoring, Marouane Chamakh, himself in only his second season at the club, cannot relive the first flush of being a Gunner. A misdirected header and a shanked shot when through on Olympiakos keeper Costanzo were efforts that a striker of confidence would snaffle.

Andrei Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky are two players who often boil the blood of the more vociferous Gunners fan. Both were once known for devastating attacking. Nowadays, however, Arshavin invites exasperation whenever play breaks down with him on the scene while Rosicky's explosive shooting looks a thing of the past as he plods in deep midfield. Neither look capable of leading through a new Arsenal that may yet be embodied by the young Oxlade-Chamberlain.

A calm and early finish of the type that Chamakh would probably kill for, and some powerful runs down the right flank, were signs that Theo Walcott now faces a rivalry for his place. "He's very friendly with Theo and Theo can offer him experience," said Rice of old man Walcott, 22. For both to flourish at a resurgent Arsenal, fans, team-mates and ultimately manager and owner in tandem must quell the anxiety that still grips their club.

ARSENAL VERDICT: Getting the job done is the best that can be hoped for at present. They did so here with plenty of anxiety thrown in. The promise of the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain was not supported by more experienced colleagues though Mikel Arteta looks a fine addition. Marseille's heavy defeat of Borussia Dortmund will serve as a warning of a tougher test ahead.

OLYMPIAKOS VERDICT: Similar to Arsenal in that, defensively, they were suspect while further up the field they created much, they paid for two defensive lapses. Without those, they would not have had to chase this game, and eventually they were held at arm's length once Arsenal recovered their shape.

FATHER OF FOOTBALL: Brian Glanville, the veteran football reporter whose tomes on the World Cup are set texts for the aspiring gentlemen of the press, was presented with a commemorative 'Glanville 80' shirt before the game in the press room to mark a landmark birthday. All those worth their salt - and your scribe - will have read his work in their childhood. A veteran of Arsenal matches since 1940, he is not giving up on this game just yet.

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