November 23, 2010 3 Comments
Matheus 83, 90
An under-strength Arsenal huffed and puffed against a mediocre SC Braga side before two sucker punches from the Brazilian forward Matheus late on consigned them to defeat. They now need to win their final fixture to ensure qualification from Champions League group H.
Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin did not make the trip to Portugal, as Arsène Wenger made seven changes from the team which capitulated so dramatically in the second half of the North London derby. Only Lukasz Fabiański, Sébastien Squillaci, Cesc Fàbregas and Denilson were retained from Saturday’s starting line-up:
Eboué – Squillaci – Djourou – Gibbs
Fàbregas – Wilshere – Denilson
Walcott – Bendtner – Rosický
Although the visitors started brightly, with both Kieran Gibbs and Theo Walcott finding space early on behind Braga’s back line, it prefaced a dull opening period. The home team, keen to avoid a repeat of the 6-0 rout at the Emirates, pressed high up the pitch making it difficult for Arsenal to establish their usual high-tempo passing game. Time and again Arsenal passed the ball neatly through midfield, only to lack a telling final ball.
Not until a 19th-minute effort from Fàbregas, a half-chance blazed harmlessly over the bar, did they register their first shot. The Arsenal captain then managed his side’s first attempt on target, a gentle sand iron of a free kick which Braga goalkeeper Luiz Felipe easily pushed away.
Gradually, though, the English side started to convert their possession into tangible threat, with Walcott the focal point. First he raced on to Fàbregas’s defence-splitting pass, but Felipe was off his line quickly to smother the ball. Then a cute chip from Nicklas Bendtner gave him another opening, but the England international dragged his effort wide from an angle. Meanwhile Braga, despite repeatedly winning free kicks for relatively soft fouls, were largely reduced to speculative efforts from distance.
Arsenal continued to make most of the running as the second half started, but without fashioning significant chances in open play. As they toiled, Braga inched their way back into the game, with Luis Aguiar shooting wide from the edge of the box when he had time and space to do better.
Desperate to shake up his team’s stuttering performance, Wenger made three rapid changes. The first – Samir Nasri for Fàbregas – was enforced – with the captain forced to depart with a hamstring injury; the others straight one-for-one swaps, with the ineffective Bendtner giving way to Marouane Chamakh and Carlos Vela replacing Walcott.
Within 90 seconds of coming on, Vela was felled in the area by the sliding Alberto Rodríguez. It was a stonewall penalty; instead the Mexican forward was booked for diving.
If that was bad, Arsenal’s evening was about to get much worse. First Emmanuel Eboué was stretchered off injured, reducing them to ten men. And then a simple ball over the top left Matheus free to run through on goal – Denilson, filling in in the back line, offered precious little resistance – and slot the ball over the advancing Fabiański to give Braga a shock 83rd-minute lead. The goal meant Arsenal have now failed to keep a clean sheet in their last 15 Champions League away games, a sorry statistic for the club which also holds the competition record for the most consecutive clean sheets.
There was worse still to come, though. As Arsenal threw caution to the wind deep into injury time, Matheus again broke free, running with the ball and escaping the attention of three defenders before unleashing an unstoppable left-foot rocket into the top corner.
2-0 was a travesty of a scoreline on the balance of play, particularly given the referee’s failure to award a clear penalty. And yet Arsenal, for all their possession, managed just a single shot on target in 90 minutes. Injustice or not, Arsenal simply did not do enough to force the result they needed, and have only themselves to blame.
Some will no doubt question Wenger’s decision to rest key players such as Chamakh, Nasri and Arshavin, but Arsenal have endured a demanding schedule over the past two months, and the eleven which was sent out tonight should have been good enough and experienced enough to deal with opponents who were more effective than they were incisive.
Speaking to Sky Sports after the game, a visibly disappointed Wenger said:
It’s a disappointing result because we played against a team that played in its own half, and as long as you don’t score a goal … I think as well we are going through a period where we have bad luck because we were punished when Eboué has been kicked off the park without any punishment and [the referee] turned down a penalty.
He questioned the value of the two additional assistant referees when what appeared to be a clear penalty was missed:
I would like to see what the fifth official is doing, and we have proof again tonight that it’s absolutely useless, this system.
But he did admit that basic defensive errors had, once again, been Arsenal’s downfall:
It was a difficult game against a team who used all the tricks to slow the game down, and it was [up to us] not to make a mistake. Unfortunately when we were down 10 against 11, we were open at the back and we made a mistake where they took advantage of it. It was a lack, certainly, of communication because we opened the centre and that’s where we were punished.
Finally, when asked whether making so many changes for this game sent a message to his players about the relative priority of this match, he simply replied:
We play so many games that we have to rotate.
What should have been a stroll after wins in their opening three group games is now a life-or-death struggle with no margin for error. A win at home to Partizan Belgrade in a fortnight’s time will still guarantee qualification. In all honesty, if Arsenal cannot achieve that in what is effectively a dead rubber for the Serbian champions, who have no points and will finish bottom of group H no matter what, then they can have no complaints about their resultant exit through the trap-door to the Europa League.
In the meantime, there is little time for Wenger’s men to wallow and lick their wounds. Both Fàbregas and Eboué are likely to be out for at least three weeks, and they face a difficult trip to the Midlands to face Aston Villa on Saturday lunchtime. If Arsenal were to lose what would be their third game in a row, then what started as a mere slide against Spurs could turn into an avalanche very quickly.
But it is not their opponents that present the greatest threat to Arsenal. Right now, their biggest enemy appears to be themselves.
- Sporting Braga 2 Arsenal 0: match report (telegraph.co.uk)
- Matheus double puts pressure on Arsenal (independent.co.uk)
- Sporting Braga 2-0 Arsenal | Champions League Group H match report (guardian.co.uk)
- Arsenal suffer another late collapse after Fabregas injury (independent.co.uk)
- Fabregas agony while Wenger rages against ‘useless’ system (independent.co.uk)
- Gunners downed in Portugal (mirror.co.uk)