Arsenal Secure Top Spot in Europa League Group H Despite Loss to FC Cologne

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistNovember 23, 2017

Cologne's French forward Sehrou Guirassy and Arsenal's French defender Mathieu Debuchy (L) vie for the ball during the UEFA Europa League football match 1 FC Cologne v Arsenal FC on November 23, 2017 in Cologne, western Germany. / AFP PHOTO / Ina FASSBENDER        (Photo credit should read INA FASSBENDER/AFP/Getty Images)
INA FASSBENDER/Getty Images

Arsenal wrapped up first place in Group H of the 2017-18 UEFA Europa League despite losing 1-0 to Cologne on Thursday evening.  

Sehrou Guirassy won a penalty for the German hosts around the hour mark and stepped up to slot home the spot-kick, moving the Bundesliga outfit off the bottom of Group H and up to third place (Red Star Belgrade owns the tie-breaker via their head-to-head win).

Gunners manager Arsene Wenger fielded a more experienced lineup, and despite the loss, BATE Borisov and Red Star Belgrade's draw in Belarus means they can't be caught at the Group H summit.

Knowing a win would seal top spot in Group H, Wenger opted for a lineup with more first-team experience at the RheinEnergieStadion, with Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck up front and Per Mertesacker in defence.

Former Hannover and Werder Bremen centre-back Mertesacker was facing a familiar Bundesliga opponent, and Arsenal alumnus Lukas Podolski—now at Vissel Kobe in Japan— had a vested interest in both teams:

Cologne came into the match under far greater pressure to clinch a result considering they sat bottom of Group H, seven points off leaders Arsenal, not to mention bottom of the Bundesliga as well.

The Billy Goats have managed to score just four times in 12 league outings but almost got the opener when Jhon Cordoba forced a great save out of Arsenal stopper David Ospina after only six minutes. That proved to be one of the better chances of the first half.

Yuya Osako took up the central striking role for Cologne and unearthed a couple of chances over the opening 30 minutes, while Welbeck was one of the busier characters in attack for the visitors.

Francis Coquelin was almost the unlikely source of a breakthrough when he ripped an effort off the woodwork, leading the Press Association's Mark Mann-Bryans to guess why the game remained scoreless:

Ainsley Maitland-Niles has received valuable experience in the Europa League this season and impressed with his work rate throughout the first half, but Arsenal rarely threatened to break Timo Horn's goal line.

The north London guests have conceded goals against Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in recent European campaigns, and ITV Football illustrated their disappointing record traveling to Germany in recent trips:

Alex Iwobi came on in place of Welbeck at the break, but after experiencing trouble attempting to break Arsenal down through open play, Cologne instead found the opener through other means just after the hour mark.

Guirassy got the inside run on Mathieu Debuchy, who looked to be treading through treacle as he attempted to rescue a late tackle, instead nicking the Cologne forward's outside leg and gifting a spot-kick to the home side.

The Frenchman showed good nerve to step up and convert his penalty down the middle and over Ospina, but again, the quality of the attacking witnessed in this fixture was questioned by the Daily Mail's Riath Al-Samarrai:

Arsenal's response after the goal was befitting of a team that knew it had already progressed. 

Jack Wilshere showed sparks of ingenuity, but this was far from the embattled display witnessed in the 2-0 victory over Tottenham on Saturday. Youngsters Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah showed some pace and verve when they entered the fray but nothing to worry the hosts too much.

Cologne manager Peter Stoger enforced some tactical substitutions of his own in the second half to load up his midfield, and the strategy of throwing bodies behind the ball to preserve their second group win paid off in the end.

The Germans will continue to fight into the final group matchday, but it's a case of job done for Arsenal despite a laboured outing on Thursday.