Rarely is a Champions League group stage game of such overall quality and of such high significance.
That could be because of a seeding system that precludes the Champions League draw. The rationale for seeding is to keep the giants away from each other so that less superior teams get eliminated early on. It thus forms the truism of Champions League football. The more it progresses, the more exciting it becomes as big teams clash in titanic battles.
For the fan however, it forms a somewhat anti-climactic opening stage. Whereas the Final is the ultimate show, the group stage provides an unworthy curtain raiser. Infinitely experienced European sides supported by financial muscle come up against opponents who can only dream of ever acquiring such grand status. It usually means that the earlier rounds are — bar the occasional upset – a procession for the elite teams.
But exceptions exist, and that may very well be a consequence of UEFA’s much talked about complicated co-efficient ranking system. It is that system that last season served up a group containing four League champions from four of Europe’s top leagues.
This season that system has conspired to serve up a group that includes last season’s Champions League runner-up; an English side with an exemplary group stage record; an Italian club that is on the ascent and a French club that is a former winner of the competition.
As such, it brought about the sort of contextual anxiety that surrounded Arsenal’s game against Borussia Dortmund at the Emirates. With the dynamics of the group – the results previous and the fixtures to come, this was a highly important game.
Far from that, it was also a game of supreme technical and tactical quality. Those sort of conditions are rarely seen in the group stages – unless the two favourites meet each other.
And at this phase of the competition, it was a game that was played in phases as no single team dominated entirely.
The first half hour belonged to Dortmund as they controlled the possession and pressed so intensely to regain it. In that period, it was strikingly odd that their 4-2-3-1 resembled a 4-4-2 as Henrikh Mkhitaryan pushed so high up that he was nominally level with Robert Lewandowski upfront. It is the Armenian who scored the opener.
Then came the final 15 minutes of the first half where Dortmund’s earlier pressing seemed to take a toll on their physical levels. The game seemed to equalise itself but Arsenal did not really step up. Regardless, they would get the equaliser as a wonderful move saw them work the ball to Bacary Sagna whose cross was misjudged by Dortmund defender Neven Subotic and goalkeeper Roman Weindenfeller. That confusion saw the ball fall kindly to Olivier Giroud — who once again this season made a near post run from the center of the box — and the Frenchman smashed it in with his left foot four minutes to half time.
The second half threatened to start much like how the first had started with Dortmund seemingly dominating. But twelve minutes after the restart, Arsene Wenger called on Santi Cazorla from the bench and that gave Arsenal the impetus. By taking off Jack Wilshere — partly due to precaution — the Frenchman brought about more balance to his midfield. Cazorla’s intelligence brought about width as well as creativity. His movement was measured to prevent him running into the same zones as Tomas Rosicky and Mesut Özil. His composure brought about stability.
More poised and with more guile, it was Arsenal who threatened to find the winner. It all reached a crescendo when a flowing move saw a Cazorla shot hit the top of the bar.
With Arsenal on the ascendency, Dortmund retreated and played on the counter-attack. It suited them that Arsenal’s dominance lacked any true penetration. The more it remained level, the more Dortmund felt like they had a chance.
In the end, it was a situation of fine margins. In a game where both teams generally give you a chance, no player thus was more suited to snatch the winner for Dortmund than Lewandowski. Given a sniff of a chance, he will take it. And he did.
But it was a game that was bigger than the overall scoreline. With no team particularly playing poorly, it was a game in which there was generally never going to be a clear loser. In the end, only the scoreline separated them.
Just as Washington Tabarez once said, it is goals that win games – not the percentages. That was certainly the case here as the percentages almost equalled out between both teams.
It is that equality of quality and unpredictability of outcome that makes a game light up such Champions League nights.