Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Unsurprisingly, Arsenal are undone by the first leg shambles

Before the Champions League round of 16 2nd leg against Monaco, I felt quite calm. Having already resigned myself to the team going out, I naively thought I might be able to relax slightly when watching the Arsenal. Needing to score three goals, Arsenal valiantly won 2-0 and put the supporters through the emotional mill again, but were once again knocked out on away goals because of first leg failings.

I can’t bring myself to get angry about the game from three weeks ago again, because like all Arsenal fans, I was fuming after the 3-1 home defeat. We won’t truly know if lessons have finally been learnt from that match unless the Gunners have a similar situation next season and make the knockout stages again. In the short term, the response to the defeat has been excellent, with five wins from five, including the hollowest of victories in Monte Carlo, with just two goals conceded in those five wins.

It was horribly predictable that Arsenal would suffer more glorious failure, but on the night, it’s difficult to fault the effort of the players against a side with an excellent defensive record. The fact Arsenal doubled the number of goals Monaco have conceded in the Champions League this season during the game highlighted that it was a good effort from Arsene Wenger’s men, but also served to emphasise how stupid it was to lose in the manner they did in the first leg.

Olivier Giroud has been the example of how bizarre that first leg performance was, with his subsequent performances making a big difference to the team. Since that horror show of missed chances and mistakes, Giroud has scored in every match he’s started. That continued in Monte Carlo as he looked like a man possessed in the first half. He challenged the Monaco centre-backs, chased everything down and fought for every ball. After seeing an earlier headed chance unluckily drop wide, he latched onto a through ball from Danny Welbeck only to be denied by the onrushing goalkeeper. From the rebound, Giroud calmly smashed the ball into the roof of the net to beat the defenders on the line.

For the situation they found themselves in, Arsenal controlled the majority of the game, and bar a 10 minute spell in the second half, carried a real threat throughout the game. Santi Cazorla was excellent, while Mesut Ozil helped Arsenal create pockets of space around the edge of the box when it was regularly crowded by the deep midfield and defence of the home team. Alexis Sanchez is beginning to look like his exertions earlier in the season are catching up with him as he gave the ball away a bit too often, but he still scared the Monaco back-line when he got the ball.

I think Arsene Wenger timed the introduction of Aaron Ramsey correctly. Although the Welshman could have started, Wenger still had to be slightly weary about starting him as he’s just returned from injury. Arsenal had to balance gung-ho attacking with not allowing needless chances on the break, especially in the first half, so it was necessary to have the more defensive Coquelin start the game. With the pattern of the game established and Monaco pinned back, Ramsey was able to come on to be an extra body around the box. After Walcott was unlucky to hit the post, Ramsey took aim and fired brilliantly into the bottom corner to give hope of a famous comeback. There were also other moments when he could have got a shot off as Arsenal pushed for the decisive third goal.

There were half chances, and Arsenal threw everyone forward in search of the goal near the end, but the tie wasn’t lost because of the failure to nab a third goal away from home. I’m fed up of glorious failure in Europe, and listening to some of the interviews after the game, the players are as well. 

Questions will always be asked of Arsenal in the Champions League due to going out in the first knockout round for five years in a row, and unfortuntely it’ll be another year before Arsenal might have a chance to properly answer them. The exit from the competition this season doesn’t signal the end of Arsenal’s season and trophy interests, so in the mean time, the Gunners have to use the European disappointment as motivation to keep the good domestic form going, as they have done so far since the shambolic, and self-inflicted, defeat at home.