BELGRADE — Three quick thoughts from Arsenal’s late, dramatic 1-0 win over Red Star Belgrade in Thursday’s early Europa League clash.
1. Giroud magic wins it for Arsenal
That is how you silence a crowd. Arsenal would have been content enough with a point against Red Star Belgrade and looked well on course to get one after numbing the threat of a home team and their vociferous fans. Then they went one better, and their 85th-minute winner will feature prominently in Olivier Giroud’s personal highlight reel. It was a brilliant finish, twisting in midair to loop an overhead kick past a static Milan Borjan after good work from Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott, and it puts Arsenal, who have three wins from three group games so far, on the verge of the Europa League knockout stage.
As expected, Wenger fielded another makeshift side for this competition. Among the most eye-catching changes was a first appearance for Mathieu Debuchy since November 2016, slotting into a three-man defence with Rob Holding and Mohamed Elneny. To their right and left, respectively, were youngsters Reiss Nelson and Ainsley Maitland-Niles; in front of them was 18-year-old Joe Willock, anchoring the midfield alongside Francis Coquelin. There was, at least, rather more experience further forward in the forms of Wilshere, Walcott and Giroud.
To the surprise of many, there was no obvious unfamiliarity as Arsenal knocked the ball around confidently in the early going. Walcott could have opened the scoring in the 15th minute with an angled shot at goal after Red Star struggled to clear a free-kick, but Borjan saved well with his feet.
The hosts, always lively on the counter, grew in stature and came agonisingly close after 26 minutes. Petr Cech blocked a dangerous Mitchell Donald cross, but from the resulting corner, he could do nothing as Richmond Boakye’s header bounced up and beyond him. Fortunately for Arsenal, it rebounded off the crossbar and pinged to safety. Life was now rather less comfortable, and Cech was forced to make a fine save from Nemanja Radonjic, left unmarked at the back post, before Nelson blocked the winger’s follow-up.
That was the sum of the action in a first half that, in truth, lacked tempo and quality. The second period began with greater ebb and flow: Elneny denied Slavoljub Srnic with a last-ditch tackle, and the same player forced a sharp parry from Cech. The Arsenal goalkeeper also saved from Nenad Krsticic, while at the other end, the lively Nelson drew another good stop from Borjan. At last, the game felt like the high-octane occasion promised in the local media.
Radonjic tricked his way dangerously to the byline before firing straight at Cech, but this intense period of activity proved short-lived, and the match appeared to be petering out, although Red Star were put on the back foot in the 81st minute, when Milan Rodic was sent off for a second yellow card. Then Giroud, who had been virtually anonymous for most of the night, produced his moment of brilliance.
2. Nelson looks like the real deal
Reiss Nelson doesn’t turn 18 until December, but judging by how he handled Thursday’s match, he should become an Arsenal regular for years to come. He’s best known for his sparkling potential going forward, but in Belgrade, he was arguably Arsenal’s liveliest player at both ends.
One crucial recovery challenge 24 minutes in prevented the dangerous Radonjic from getting away, while his block to deny the same player later in the first half showed both alertness and bravery. There was another sharp interception from a through-ball before the half-time whistle blew, too. Nelson was only able to show flashes of his ability in the final third during the opening period but on an occasion that demanded discipline and toughness, he had already excelled.
As space opened up in the second half, Nelson had his chance to make a more tangible impact. One twinkle-toed run set up a half-chance that Walcott miscued. He then almost scored with a shot of his own, and if any proof were needed of the confidence his team-mates placed in him, it was the fact that senior players stood aside to let him take a 64th-minute free-kick. He planted that shot into the wall; it was a rare example of an unconvincing contribution from the youngster.
It was a performance that suggested the Arsenal academy is still producing well-rounded talents, and Nelson was not the only one. Willock, 18, more than held his own in midfield, using the ball sensibly and appearing more than aware that this was not an occasion for risks or flashiness. In fact, Nelson had an indirect role in the winning goal, intercepting the ball inside his own half and starting the period of pressure that eventually bore such spectacular fruit. It was an all-round performance that more than justified his manager’s trust.
3. Red Star fall short in cauldron atmosphere
To borrow from Troy Deeney, you needed “cojones” for this one. Red Star’s supporters packed the Marakana stadium, one of the continent’s most intimidating venues even on a quiet day, for what many considered their biggest game since the triumphant European Cup campaign of 1990-91. They welcomed the teams to the pitch with a tifo depicting a cannon (presumably representing Arsenal) being silenced by a hushing finger. Two-and-a-half decades of slow decline have hurt this proud club, and this was an opportunity to go some way towards recapturing past glories.
There were few real surprises on the pitch from Red Star, who were lively without ever quite sustaining a period of pressure that might have caused a callow Arsenal side to crack. In Boakye, they have a strong, intelligent striker who has been linked with Premier League clubs but aside from his header against the frame, he was denied any serious openings. The flanks were their greatest source of counter-attacking joy but too often decent positions were squandered and final balls misplaced. Red Star looked as they are: a competent, improving side that retains hope of progressing through the group but will fall short against opposition with proven quality.
They switched off in the move for Giroud’s goal, much as the finish was sublime, and the home support focused their attention on the continent’s governing body, chanting “UEFA, mafia!” — a sentiment reflecting their disapproval at Kosovo’s membership. And so, a night that began with such promise and anticipation ended rather sourly. Red Star had not played badly but showed that after falling from such a great height, they still have some way to go before they can rank among Europe’s greats again.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.