Before a ball had been kicked at the Emirates, there was a degree of pessimism about the first leg Europa League semi-final tie against Atletico Madrid. This had the hallmarks of another frustrating, nail biting night at the hands of Arsenal’s Jekyll and Hyde defence. It was a night which saw them give up their advantage to 10 man Atletico, who also had their volcanic manager, Diego Simeone, sent to the stands, just three minutes after defender Sime Vrsaljko got his own marching orders.
The Croatians first indiscretion was aimed at Jack Wilshere, his second was an unnecessary lunge at Lacazette which ended with him stomping on the strikers foot.
He was promptly dispatched for an earlier than expected shower and no doubt helped himself to Griezmann’s head and shoulders shampoo. There was no Diego Costa for this leg but Griezmann was there and was always a danger if the North London club decided to do the simple things badly.
Yet things had been so promising for Arsenal up until the 81st minute. They had been creative and industrious and could have easily put the game to bed with just a little more precision but when you give away a yard of space at this level or fail to put in a credible challenge, it can result in the most severe form of punishment possible.
Griezmann had been reasonably quiet with only two notable chances but a player of his class can go missing until the right ball finds him in the right space with an indecisive defence. Where was the cover? Where was the preparation for the over the top delivery and why were Arsenal undone by a hopeful punt to the heavens.
Defending has been a problem for what seems like forever and the Gunners were brutally exposed once more having got their nose in front from a delightfully executed header from in-form striker Alexandre Lacazette. They were undone by the brilliance and determination of Griezmann and one can understand why he is so highly rated.
He’s quick, intelligent and in these positions, extremely hard to shrug off, even if Arsenal had another two defenders in reserve. They now have it all to do in a weeks time but the statistics are not favourable. Atletico have a formidable record at home, racking up 11 successive clean sheets and haven’t been beaten there for three months.
A shocking lapse in concentration saw a 40-yard speculative punt take out three Arsenal defenders, with Koschelny fluffing an attempted clearance. The troubled central defender appeared tight on Antoine Griezmann’s shoulder but the striker had far too much for the Frenchman and buried the ball high in the roof of the net at the second time of asking, leaving Ospina looking on and Mustafi flapping like a fallen penguin.
You feel at this stage that having had all the odds stacked in their favour because of a one-man advantage, that only a Herculean effort by Arsenal will see them through to the final. The north Londoners will have to win without conceding and play Atletico off the park but with Griezmann and possibly Costa for the second leg, they can’t afford any more ‘You’ve been framed’ moments.
Wenger will have to roll the dice and commit to attack but will be mindful that his fragile defence could break at any given moment and if that were to happen, the tie would be over. For Arsenal fans and Wenger in particular, it’s another night where the fruit seemed sweet but tasted sour. The Frenchman’s final spell in charge may not be his Cinderella farewell and may even be more akin to a nightmare on elm street.
If that is to be the case, Wenger will rue the day he went cheap in defence, he will regret the fact that he had ample opportunity to resolve the frailties of five or six seasons and also that he leaves Arsenal with quite possibly the worst defence of his long career. It’s at moments like this when everything because cosmically clear and if Wenger’s reign were to end without one last trophy, it would be the cruelest cut of all.
Football is not about heartwarming endings and unfortunately for Wenger, he no longer has a side that has grit or bite. There are less fiery characters in the side that are prepared to get physical and do whatever it takes to win. If only the clock could be turned back and Arsenal had Viera at their disposal, this tie may already be over and the Frenchman could be thinking about a team for the final but that’s not the case.
The truth is that Wenger’s team are fortunate to have made the semifinal and have exceeded expectations this season but it does feel as if fate is conspiring against them and that they aren’t able to deliver in the manner one would have liked. Of course, anything can happen in the second leg and Arsenal performed brilliantly at times yesterday, so much so that a four or five goal advantage would have been a fair result but they capitulated in a moment of madness. They will need more, much, much more before Wenger can say ‘Je ne regrette rien’
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