This morning, Tony Mowbray looked out of his window, saw the clouds and the threat of rain, and though “a bit of rain will help our game tonight”. He made his breakfast, ate it, enjoyed it, and began the journey to the Lennoxtown training centre in a buoyant, if not overly-confident mood.
But, somewhere along the way, he must have ran over a black cat. Or smashed a mirror. Or both. For the luck most certainly deserted his Celtic side on a night which belonged to Arsenal courtesy of two wicked deflections which knocked the stuffing out of a boisterous Parkhead crowd.
Both sides sauntered into this game on the back of comprehensive away victories with which they had begun their season, both had been three up and able to relax at half time at the weekend, and both had talked confidently about their respective plan of action for this particular encounter.
Arsène Wenger, naturally, opted for the same eleven that had instigated the rout of Everton on Saturday. Conversely, his student Tony Mowbray sprung a slight surprise in naming Georgios Samaras as his lone frontman, leaving Australian Scott McDonald and £3.8m signing Marc-Antoine Fortuné among the substitutes. Mowbray may well have been forgiven for adding an extra body in the midfield however, welcoming Scott Brown back for his first start of the campaign.
And after a typically deafening “You’ll Never Walk Alone” chorus, and tribal roar, the tempo in the opening exchanges was predictably frantic. Celtic keen not to give Arsenal room to play, the visitors eager to show that they were still prepared to play in the face of strong arm tactics. It was Wenger’s side who had the ball in the net first through the sublime Andrey Arshavin, albeit from an offside position. Celtic threatened intermittently, often from left back Danny Fox and his well angled crosses, and later from a counter attacking surge from Aidan McGeady which forced Thomas Vermaelen into a useful challenge on Brown, but it was Arsenal, with Arshavin & Cesc Fàbregas in regal form, who dominated the ball.
Still, when the opening goal did eventually come, it owed as much to an outrageous slice of fortune as anything else, Fàbregas hitting a 30 yard free kick powerfully to Boruc’s bottom right hand corner, the ball smacking off William Gallas’ back and nestling painfully in the bottom left, with the Polish keeper completely stranded. It was a harsh blow, three minutes before the break.
And it seemed to stifle Celtic’s roars, in the seven minutes after half time; Arsenal might have scored on three occasions. Arshavin finding oceans of space in the centre of the park and feeding Robin Van Persie, who angled his left foot strike wide of Boruc’s far post, before Denílson saw a carefully guided 20 yarder flash wide with the keeper beaten. Van Persie fluffed another presentable chance soon after following a powerful burst forward from Gallas, whilst in between these incidents there were vociferous penalty appeals from the Parkhead crowd as Nicklas Bendtner handled a free kick from Shaun Maloney, though referee Massimo Busacca- who refereed last year’s final- can be forgiven for adjudging it as accidental.
Celtic, to their credit, managed to regroup after the initial onslaught of the second half, and the introduction of McDonald & Fortuné for the ineffective Samaras gave them a greater presence up front. Fortuné’s searching ball for his strike partner may well have brought about an equaliser were it not for Gallas, at full stretch, deflecting the ball dangerously wide of his front post with Manuel Almunia committed to the cross.
It proved to be the final real chance for the Hoops, four minutes later Wenger sent on Abou Diaby for Arshavin, and within a minute the Frenchman had beaten Andreas Hinkel with a beautiful piece of footwork and fed Gaël Clichy down the left, the Frenchman’s cross was hard and true, and the luckless Gary Caldwell- sent off for Scotland in Norway last week- had to get something on it. Unfortunately his studs carried the ball past the diving Boruc and into the net, giving Arsenal the all-important second goal, and compounding Mowbray’s rotten luck.
Caldwell was philosophical after the game, claiming that his team were beaten by a better side (true), whilst Mowbray decried the “two or three slices of luck” that had gone against his side (equally true). For Wenger and co however, there is a nice cushion to play with in the second leg at the Emirates in a fortnight’s time, and with his side in such imperious form in possession, things are looking nice at the moment in the Arsenal garden.
Man of the Match – Cesc Fàbregas is the heart and soul of this Arsenal team, and his performance fitted his reputation, despite various attempts to stifle him.