UEFA Champions League is underway! Yesterday, fans witnessed some spectacular matches between European giants in the first round of group play. Chelsea trumped Leverkusen and Porto dismissed Shaktar with a missed penalty to boot. In dramatic fashion, AC Milan and Barcelona finished 2-2. Pato silenced Camp Nou 30 seconds into the match but the Rossoneri would be a goal down shortly after the half. Stunning the Catalan's and stealing a point, Thiago Silva's equalizer came late in the second minute of stoppage time.
Arsenal travelled to Signal Iduna Park in Dortmund for their most difficult appointment in group play. As of late, there are very few teams on the Continent who have stepped onto that pitch and not been victimized by a footballing master-class. The BVB Stadion is one of the most difficult places to play in Europe with a sellout crowd of over 80,000 hardcore Dortmund fanatics present at nearly every single match. To escape the grounds without suffering a loss is indeed an accomplishment.
In the opening stages of the match, the visitors absorbed heavy pressure from the Dortmund offensive. Gervinho had a good shot blocked not five minutes in, but the hosts soon settled in and attacked relentlessly. The young Japanese ace, Shinji Kagawa proved lethal in front of goal in Dortmund's title winning season last year and his form has only improved. Mario Gotze nearly broke the deadlock in the 10th minute, but a last gasp clearance by Bacary Sagna saw the ball off the line and kept the Londoner's in the match. Arsenal gained ground and possession but were forced to fight for every inch. As the half was drawing to a close, Robin Van Persie robbed the Dortmund defense with an incisive slide tackle, cleverly slotting the ball to a waiting Walcott center-field. The two were clearly on the same plain; in moments the Dutchman raced forward, receiving a perfect through ball, and stung the net before Wiedenfeller had even read the play.
The fans were no less vocal in the second half, almost in defiance of the goal deficit. Some brilliant link up play saw Gervinho fall just short of what would have been the decisive goal in the 59th minute. A Dortmund resurgence was not enough to penetrate a determined Arsenal defense whose stingy back-line was a salve to many ailing Arsenal fans. The boys in Red and White had bent without being broken. It seemed that Dortmund were spent and the Gunners had pulled it off...almost. Four minutes from time, the hosts were awarded a free kick. The initial effort was blocked, but in a sublime volley, Dortmund's Perisic found the absolute top corner of the net with a shot you couldn't help but admire. In the final seconds, Szczesny snatched a critical save and preserved a point for Arsenal.
The draw was certainly a disappointment for Wenger's men, given the run of play. However, the match as a whole was a colossal success. Arsenal's defense showed some real grit and consistency in the face of a difficult opponent and a tough stadium. The group should get easier from here and Arsenal will look to secure the top spot and easier draw in the next round. For now, its time to refocus on the domestic campaign and prepare to face Blackburn at Ewood Park on Saturday.