Thursday, February 22, 2024

Arsenal win but last-16 place still not certain

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Ajax end Barca’s unbeaten run; Chelsea lose but still go through

LONDON: Jack Wilshere scored twice, the first after 30 seconds, as Group F leaders Arsenal beat Olympique Marseille 2-0 on Tuesday but have yet to secure a Champions League last-16 place.
Arsenal, with four wins in five matches, head the group with 12 points followed by Borussia Dortmund, whose 3-1 win over Napoli leaves both sides on nine. Marseille have none after five straight defeats.
Meanwhile, Ajax Amsterdam stayed in contention for the last-16 after becoming the first side to beat Barcelona this season with a 2-1 triumph at home.
Chelsea qualified for the final 16 despite losing again to Basel 1-0 away.
Other results on the night saw Steaua Bucharest draw 0-0 with Schalke 04, Zenit St Petersburg draw with Atletico Madrid 1-1, Porto draw by the same margin with FK Austria Vienna and AC Milan win 3-0 at Celtic.
Arsenal’s last match on December 11 is away to Napoli while Dortmund visit Marseille meaning Arsenal, Dortmund and Napoli could all finish with 12 points in which case results between the three would decide who advances to the last-16.
As long as Arsenal do not lose by three goals or more they will qualify for the knockout rounds for the 14th successive season, but it means Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger will have to take a strong team to Napoli next month.
“It is unbelievable, but it’s reality and we have to finish the job. It’s a tricky situation. You could think, ‘we must not lose big’ but I think that would be a mistake,” Wenger told reporters afterwards.
“We have to go there and try and win the game because otherwise it is a huge gamble.
“I have never known anything like it in my 150 Champions League matches.”
Arsenal were vastly superior to a Marseille team already out of contention with coach Elie Baup fielding a number of younger inexperienced players while resting his senior men for their French League exploits.
Clever curler
Wilshere put Arsenal ahead with a clever curler and added a second in the 65th minute after a superb move with the final pass exquisitely played by Mesut Ozil, who missed a first-half penalty.
After taking such an early lead Arsenal took the game to their opponents playing with a confident swagger that should have produced more goals in a largely one-sided match.
Midfielder Aaron Ramsey should have doubled their lead after another fine flowing move orchestrated by Wilshere but he fired straight at goalkeeper Steve Mandanda. Then Ozil wasted a golden opportunity with a poor spot kick after 38 minutes.
It was debatable whether Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz called the decision correctly as Nicolas N’Koulou’s foul on Ramsey appeared to be just outside the area.
The only blot of an otherwise straightforward victory for Arsenal was Wenger expressing a dim view with midfielder Mathieu Flamini for cutting down the long sleeves of his shirt making them short ones.
“I did not like that. He will not do it again,” Wenger said.
Ajax fan hurt
Ajax took a two-goal lead by halftime on goals by Thulani Serero and Danny Hoesen, but were forced to hang on for the three points after Joel Veltman was sent off for bringing down Neymar in the area, earning Barcelona a penalty kick. Xavi Hernandez calmly converted it.
Barca were missing the injured Lionel Messi and fielded a makeshift backline with fullbacks Jordi Alba and Dani Alves and goalkeeper Victor Valdes also absent.
Injury-plagued Barcelona, who had already qualified for the knockout stages from Group H, applied pressure in search of an equaliser but Ajax held out to wild applause in Amsterdam Arena.
An Ajax fan was seriously injured after falling 10 metres from the stands as he celebrated the second goal. He was taken to hospital.
Ajax stay third in the group, one point behind AC Milan, who they must now beat away on December 11 to qualify.
Barca coach Gerardo Martino said: “In the first half we didnt have a good attitude. At an individual level we were not as good as Ajax.”
It was Barcelona’s first defeat under new coach Martino and ended hopes of a record-equalling, longest unbeaten start to a season.
The Spanish club had gone 20 games without defeat, one shy of the record set by Pep Guardiola’s 2011-12 side.
They last lost at home to Bayern Munich in last season’s Champions League semifinal.
Mourinho unhappy
Mohamed Salah’s late goal earned Basel a 1-0 win and a second straight Group E victory over the 2012 champions. But Chelsea are guaranteed a top-two finish after Schalke drew with Steaua Bucharest.
Chelsea sailed through their group with three straight victories since opening with a 2-1 home loss to Basel.
They knew a point would be enough to advance and that appeared to hold back manager Jose Mourinho’s team, who failed to have a shot on goal before Salah sprinted clear of Chelsea’s defence to clip a left-footed shot over advancing keeper Petr Cech in the 87th minute.
”I did not like anything from the first minute,” Mourinho said. ”A bad performance, a deserved defeat. But because of other results, we qualify.
Six months after losing to Bayern in the final, Dortmund would not have gotten out of their group if they had lost to Napoli.
But Marco Reus’ penalty kick and goals scored by Jakub Blaszczykowski and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang revived the German side’s hopes.
”It was a match to remember,” Dortmund coach Juergen Klopp said.
Dortmund complete the group with a trip to Marseille, who are seeking to avoid a sixth straight defeat.
Kaka and Cristian Zapata pounced on poor defending of corner kicks by Celtic to score in the 13th and 49th minutes for Milan.
Italy striker Mario Balotelli wrapped up victory in the 59th. (Agencies)

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