Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Arsenal Five for Five after Monaco Heartbreak

On February 16, 2011, Arsenal hosted Barcelona at the Emirates as the clear underdogs in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 clash. The year before they were trounced by the scintillating Barca team by an aggregate score of 6-3. But after falling behind 1-0, the Gunners exploded for two in the second half and had an epic win, with Wilshere arguably playing the best game of his entire career with Arsenal. The return leg saw that wonderful victory unwind into disappointment, right on the tail of a disastrous Carling Cup loss to Birmingham. After a resilient first 44 minutes when the Gunners held Barcelona out, our captain and star Cesc Fabergas made an appalling error, giving the Spaniards the goal they needed to square the match. Arsenal needed a goal and it came as a gift early in the second half, an own goal error by the Cataluñans. Arsenal were back in business until an insane second yellow on Robin Van Persie (for taking a shot after an offsides whistle he clearly couldn’t hear). Down to 10 men, Arsenal held on for a time before two goals in quick succession had Barcelona back to the good. With time running out a through ball to Nickolas Bendtner left him one on one with the GK Valdez, but the self-pronounced “best striker in the world” missed wide and the Gunners were eliminated.

The next year, Arsenal matched up with an AC Milan team far removed from their three finals from 2003 to 2007. But a disastrous first leg away saw the Gunners down 4-0. Hope seemed lost until three goals put them within one of extra time. But Robin Van Persie came to the rescue, of the opposition, by missing a sitter from four feet and Milan held on for the 4-3 aggregate win. The past two season, Arsenal lost the first legs at home to Bayern Munich before coming back to win and draw on the road. In 2013, they lost the first leg at the Emirates 3-1, then won 2-0 at Bayern to fall out on away goals. In 2014, an early missed penalty by Ozil and a red for our error-prone goalkeeper meant the 1-1 draw at Bayern was not nearly enough to overcome the 2-0 loss at home in the first leg. And as was the case two years ago, Arsenal again had a rough first leg to find themselves down 3-1 heading to one of the stoutest defenses in the UCL this year.

The first leg 3-1 loss to Monaco was a flat performance by a team that has been playing well for most of the year, but mirrored the past three Round of 16 problems. Arsenal just weren’t up to the task and their poor finishing (particularly Giroud, who missed four gild-edged chances and sent two other shots off target) and defensive mistakes put them in an almost impossible position. That the very man, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who gave them hope with a late scorcher made the mistake that ended the tie only a few minutes later, adds to the notion that this is a team that just doesn’t perform at the highest level in Europe when it counts. Arsenal were valiant today and had 16 minutes to find the goal that would have seen them through, but they were a goal short yet again. And so it is now five years without a Final 8 berth and further evidence that Wenger is one rung below the truly great coaches, who have all found a way to win one (or more) European Cups.

Monaco actually started the game tonight with the upper hand, with two decent chances in the first 10 minutes. But Arsenal settled into the game and had their first good chance when a Bellerin cross found Giroud between two Monaco defenders on 14 minutes, though his connection was a little off from an odd angle and he sent the ball wide. The game was back and forth, with Koscielny having a quality chance to open Arsenal’s account, though his shot from close range hit the post. Then, on 36 minutes, Giroud was sent in by Welbeck. His first shot was blocked, but he pulled a quick 360 pirouette and finished into the roof with his right foot from an acute angle. It was the first goal conceded at the Stade Louis II in the UCL this year! Two minutes later, Welbeck almost made it two with a free shot from 15 yards blocked by a defender’s legs on its way into the net with the keeper diving the wrong way. It was a lucky break for Monaco and not the last one they would have in the game. On 42 minutes a second one came as Sanchez was downed in the box by a Monaco defender, but rather than point to the spot, the referee booked the Chilean for a dive; odd given that Sanchez had his back to the defender. Again, Arsenal could have easily been lining up for their second and before halftime two other half chances would go wanting. Yet the half ended 1-0.

Arsenal came out for the second half with great hope and Giroud had a half chance within the first minute, though he probably should have taken a touch rather than his wild volley stab that went wide. They were rampant from here, but the second goal was elusive against the disciplined Monaco defensive formation, who started pushing forward in the middle of the second half and kept the ball away from the Gunners for a time. Aaron Ramsey came on for Coquelin in the 61st minute to restore some forward momentum and Ozil had a decent chance within a minute, though he sent it wide. The game was back and forth, with Monaco almost securing the tie with more than one breakaway, but each chance fizzled and Ramsey ramped up the pressure on 79 minute, bringing the Gunners to the brink of an unlikely comeback (a team hasn’t recovered from a home first leg two-goal deficit in the European Cup since the 60s). Walcott had hit a cross off the post but the rebound ended up at Ramsey’s foot after a poor clearance and sent it across goal and in. He look like the player from the first half of last year and hope was renewed … at least for the 15 minutes and change before the double whistle signaled another “almost Arsene moment.” It truly was almost, as a save on the line by the Monaco keeper on 83 minutes kept Monaco from conceding a historic third.

The Gunners can now focus on finishing in the Top Four and maybe winning a second FA Cup running. But it is a bitterly disappointing fifth straight exit at this stage, particularly if one realizes that the Gunners were one of eight or nine missed chances from taking the tie, even with the terrible first leg. They were undone again by an inexplicably flat performance in a big game, defensive errors (again in a big game) and the inability to finish their chances. The one positive one can take is that this team, which one expects to remain more or less intact next year, now has the experience of near misses that might just catapult them to the next level. The chances of Wenger finally winning a European crown become even more remote though and one wonders how many more chances remain to right that glaring lacuna in the cv of our French philosopher king.

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