ARSENAL v ATHLETIC
Play-Off Leg 1
Starting XI - Martínez; Debuchy, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Sánchez, Wilshere, Arteta, Cazorla; Welbeck, Podolski
Bench - Vickers, Chambers, Özil, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Flamini, Bellerín, Giroud
Starting XI - Iraizoz; Iraola, Laporte, Gurpegi, Balenziaga; Beñat, Rico, Susaeta, De Marcos, Muniain; Aduriz
Bench - Kepa, San Jose, Aurtenetxe, Moran, Gomez, Etxeita, Viguera
The teams of Athletic Bilbao and Arsenal lined up on a breezy night at the Emirates stadium for the first of a two legged tie to decide who shall continue through to the Champions League group stages. Arsenal were favourites to win however Athletic would have always put up a good effort, knowing that they can be just as good as Arsenal on their day. New head coach Quique Flores was also looking to impress his new fans early on in his reign.
Arsenal named a surprise goalkeeper to start this game in third choice Damián Martínez. However the team in-front of him was a full strength team with the likes of Alexis Sánchez, Danny Welbeck and Lukas Podolski running the attack. Athletic key-player and Chelsea transfer target Ander Itturaspe had to miss out on this game after twisting his knee in training the day before.
Arsenal started off brightly, dominating the early parts of the game and Athletic were very happy to drop back and keep them away from goal. For the first half-an-hour Arsenal simply passed around in midfield, however they couldn't find a way to cut through the well-organised Athletic defence. However, Alexis Sánchez brought the game alight when he powered past Balenziaga and took the ball round the on-rushing Iraizoz before tapping the ball into the net to put his side one up.
From the kick-off the game came to life. Athletic new that they had to grab an equalizer soon and Martínez coped well in the Arsenal goal up until Oscar De Marcos won a free-kick just outside the box and slightly to the left of the goal after being took down by a late Mertesacker challenge. Beñat stepped up and curled the ball around the right side of the wall and it slammed into the top of the net before Martinez had time to even move.
The first-half fizzled out as both teams challenged to grab the majority of possession. The second-half started just as the first ended. Oscar De Marcos was having a great game and on the fifty-fifth minute he sent the travelling Basque fans into raptures as he hit home a beautiful volley on the edge of the box after a poor clearing header by Debuchy found it's way to him. De Marcos slightly miss-hit the ball and it bounced and wriggled underneath the goalkeeper to put Bilbao into the lead.
Spaniard Santi Cazorla spoiled the Bilbao party when he found space inside the box to fire a ball past Iraizoz to grab Arsenal's equalizer. It was a lovely passing move from Arsenal who had really not had many chances since Athletic took the lead. The game was then looking as if it was heading for a well fought draw until Lukas Podolski broke Spanish hearts as he blasted home a late winner in stoppage time. Lukas ran into the left-hand side of the box and latched onto a Wilshere ball before slicing it into the far-post, sending the Arsenal fans ecstatic.
Athletic now have it all to do at San Mamés , if they are to reach the group stages. They showed that they can put up a good fight today, however they will need to be a lot better at home if they are to overcome this defeat. They have the quality but will they have the spirit?
"Yes we can sit and think heavily about how unlucky we were to lose such a game so late on," opened a passionate Flores after the game. "They got lucky, that's it. But I'm not going to sit and complain and think 'what if?', that will not help. We need to get back up from that hammer-blow of a late goal and take them back to Bilbao and show them what we can do!"