Arsenal draw 0-0 vs. Red Star but still advance to Europa League knockouts
LONDON -- Three quick thoughts after Arsenal were held to a 0-0 draw against Red Star Belgrade at the Emirates in the Europa League on Thursday ...
1. Arsenal advance without impressing
Arsenal's second string couldn't conjure up a piece of magic this time but the Gunners still clinched a spot in the Europa League knockout rounds with two games to spare.
Just as in Serbia two weeks ago, Arsene Wenger's band of backups and youth players laboured mightily to break down Red Star Belgrade's defence and lacked the sharpness to finish off the few chances it created. While Olivier Giroud clinched the away fixture with a stunning late winner, there was no such moment of inspiration here to secure the victory.
It meant Arsenal dropped points for the first time in the competition and also brought an end to the 13-game home winning streak that was the club's longest since moving to the Emirates. But FC Cologne's win over BATE Borisov still secured advancement for Arsenal from Group H, giving Wenger even more leeway to rotate his side for the final two group games.
The Arsenal boss again made 11 changes from Saturday's win over Swansea, meaning his Premier League starters will be rested for this week's real priority: Sunday's trip to high-flying Manchester City. The most notable name on the team sheet was third-choice goalkeeper Matt Macey making his first European start, which he marked with a stunning one-handed save in the first half that kept the game scoreless.
Arsenal's best chance in the first half fell to Giroud early on when Ainsley Maitland-Niles did well to feed the striker in the box, but his low shot drew a good leg save from Milan Borjan. Otherwise the opening 45 minutes was most notable for the high number of sideways passes from an Arsenal side struggling to find any real rhythm.
The frustration continued in the second half, although Jack Wilshere nearly netted with a delicate chip over Borjan that was acrobatically cleared off the line by Damien Le Tallec. Even the introduction of Eddie Nketiah, the two-goal hero against Norwich a week ago, with 20 minutes left failed to bear fruit this time.
Arsenal spent the remainder of the game pressing for a win, but never looked likely to find it.
2. Macey shows he belongs
Macey had to wait a long time for his chance to guard the Arsenal goal. Based on this display, though, Wenger may have finally found a long-term successor to Petr Cech.
The fact that Macey made his first-team debut only last week at the age of 23, in the Carabao Cup win over Norwich in place of the injured David Ospina, seemed to speak volumes about how Wenger viewed the keeper, who joined the academy in 2013. But the 6-foot-5 (1.98 metres) Macey showed he has reflexes to match his size.
After a near nightmare start to the biggest game of his life, a mishit clearance straight to Richmond Boakye to gift Red Star a good chance just five minutes in, Macey didn't show another sign of weakness all night. His first save of the night was fairly routine, tipping a shot from Slavoljub Srnic over the bar moments after Giroud nearly scored at the other end. His second, though, was superb. After a deflected shot looped up in the air, Macey had to get up quickly to turn away a header from Vujadin Savic, stretching out every inch of his length to tip the ball onto the bar.
It was the kind of save the shorter Ospina would have had a very difficult time pulling off. Just before the break, Macey's considerable size then clearly put off Boakye when he came clear on goal as the forward sent his effort well wide. Replays showed he didn't have much of the goal to aim at.
Macey had only one simple save to make after the break in order to earn the first clean sheet of his Arsenal career. It may not be his last.
3. Wilshere fails to prove Southgate wrong
Wilshere entered the game with a point to prove after being left out of Gareth Southgate's latest England squad earlier in the day but his subpar display will have done little to make Southgate regret his decision.
Wilshere has been the main bright spot of Arsenal's Europa League campaign so far, but rarely asserted his usual influence against Red Star. He often found himself stranded on the left wing far away from the ball and didn't show his normal crisp passing when attempting his customary link-ups with Giroud.
His frustration became evident when he angrily shoved away Filip Stojkovic with both hands near the sideline: an action that evoked memories of his red card with the under-23s earlier this season. This time he escaped with just a stern talking-to from the referee, but nevertheless, it was a reminder that Wilshere's fuse can still be a bit too short.
While his game picked up over the last 20 minutes (and he was unlucky to be denied a winner by Le Tallec) this was not Wilshere at his best. In fairness to the midfielder, though, Wenger has not surrounded him with the type of players who can make the most of his skills. Wilshere needs other top-quality passers to combine with in order to be at his most effective, but Theo Walcott and Francis Coquelin both come up well short in that department.
Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.