UEFA Champions League
Round of Sixteen, First Leg
FC Porto 2 – 1 Arsenal
(11) 1 – 0 Varela
(16) 1 – 1 Campbell
(50) 2 – 1 Falcao
This defeat was not down to the referee, although the original, perhaps more eyecatching, title of this piece perhaps captures the mood: “Arsenal Lose In Porto Thanks To The Cult Of The Referee. And Yes, That Was A Typo“. Yesterday’s headline said it all: “Injuries are not an excuse. Neither is sloppiness“. This loss was not down to anything bar two instances of concentration being entirely absent. Sloppiness.
This was a match which Arsenal should not have lost. They were in control for long periods and had a lot of freedom to move around the pitch at will. Porto seemed content to let Arsenal play this way, almost reverting to counter-attacking for long periods, a sign of what is to come in the return leg.
To use the boxing analogy, punches were traded in the opening phase, Porto had the better of the initial sparring, shooting wide with good opportunties and testing Fabianski’s nerves. Arsenal soon attained the ascendency before being pegged back by a sucker punch, reminiscent of Steve Heighway’s opener in the 1971 FA Cup Final; if anyone understands the agonies Fabianski will undoubtedly suffer, Bob Wilson will surely do so.
Parity was not long in being restored; ghosts of George Graham’s Arsenal pervaded as Vermaelen flicked on – rather firmly – to the redoubtable head of Tomas Rosicky, his header back across the face of goal, met with gleeful force from Sol Campbell. The remainder of the first half followed a similar pattern. Porto on the back foot, Arsenal breaching the home defence with sublime passing, jarred into retreat by forays on either flank, passing from the home side assured until the final third where feet, legs and various other body parts tellingly intervened.
The opening exchanges in the second half continued in the same vein, the question posed as to when Arsenal would next score. Until the referee intervened. Campbell intercepted instinctively and forced the ball to Fabianski, who controlled and the picked the ball up, correctly awarding a free-kick. The Swede further correctly allowed a quick tap-kick to be taken, Campbell inexplicably – past actions show this may have been instinctive – put his head in his hands rather than prevent the quick kick; punishment was swift, Wenger incandescent.
It is understandable why the Frenchman felt so furious. As much as the anger built with the lack of awareness of the defence, concentration entirely absent, the inconsistency of officiating at this level of the game is enough to test the patience of a saint. Frequently quick free-kicks are blocked; on the edge of the area – let alone inside – such alertness on the part of an attacker is stifled by a preening prancer making sure that everyone is aware that they have taken Brasso to their Acme Thunderer, hoisting their trinket triumphantly to the Heavens watching it gleam, iridescent in the floodlights.
On this occasion, the man who was unaware of Thierry Henry’s ball-handling skills, played to the letter of the law. Uefa and Fifa defend their respective corners stoutly when it comes to questioning officials, Papal Infalibilty pales into insignificance compared with the deification of officials in a football match. Roy Hodgson questioned whether the introduction of technology into football was a pointless search for perfection; I would argue that all supporters, players and managers want is consistency.
Fabianski did well other than these two instances; he was confident in coming from crosses, parrying and holding shots when Porto threatened to breach the visitors defence. And yet, his most recent first team outings are marred by mistakes. Some can be put down to the folly of youth – last season’s FA Cup semi-final, for example – but the path the Pole is treading is fraught with the memories of Alex Manninger, an outstanding prospect but never able to find the consistency required to be Arsenal’s Number One. Hopefully, Fabianski will outgrow this phase and deliver on his promise, for he has the makings of an excellent goalkeeper.
Opportunities to level the scores once more still abounded; spurned, saved or deflected to deny equality. I do not think Wenger has much to complain about in terms of the attacking performance, the midfield passed and moved quickly, Bendtner allowed to move off a Porto defence which held position rather than man-to-man marking. The Dane was lively in the first half, one ferocious drive deflected wide in the early stages, dropping out of the centre on occasion to the flanks whilst linking well with supporting players.
In midfield, Cesc was fouled incessantly by Porto, the hosts rotating that particular duty in order to prevent yellow cards which would have led to bans. Even so, the referee was unduly lenient with the most persistent offenders escaping punishment until the latter stages or entirely. It was a throwback to the ‘Good Old Days‘ of this competition unlike the match itself, the antithesis of what is expected in a knockout competition, first leg.
Diaby and Denilson shared defensive duties but the former surged forward on occasion, one delightful moment left a Porto defender on his backside. On this occasion, like much of the evening though, the end product was missing.
Denilson’s style of play harks back to players of the ilk of Ray Wilkins, once his ‘Butch’-ness had gone. One hopes for the Brazilian’s sake that his hairline is retained for a longer period. Quietly sweeping the ball up with interceptions rather than the crunching tackles which are apparently so desirous of central midfielders in the English game; using the ball sensibly, passing sideways rather than ambitiously forwards where possession is ceded cheaply.
Of course, this aspect passes his detractors by and his rite of passage into Arsenal is remarkably similiar to that of Gilberto Silva, his predecessor castigated for not being a Vieira clone until it was realised that a calm, passing, footballing brain is as advantageous, if not more beneficial than a combustible style.
Wenger will be less happy defensively. Porto identified the flanks as a potential weakness, pushing Clichy onto the back foot in the opening phase before the first goal. However, once those avenues were blocked, they punched through the centre, using bulk as much as brain to fashion openings. Wenger will not be entirely happy that the midfield did not snuff out danger quickly, the stretched nature of the game ensuring that the gap between defence and the next line was too wide.
Ultimately though there is a deficit to be retrieved. Porto offered little evidence that they could protect their slender advantage but Arsenal has, unlike PSV in 2007, the knowledge that scraping through by a 1 – 0 victory will be sufficient. Perhaps it could deflect into the net via the referee, a sense of poetic justice would be fitting.