Possession may be nine tenths of the law, but it’s that damn sucker punch, that remaining one tenth that kills your spirit. I must admit, I had this déja vu moment in that 82nd minute. It was a Wembley Cup Final, the same script being replayed. Laurent Koscielny still had his starring role; only Obufemi Martins and wochiech szczesny were replaced by Antoine Griezmann and David Ospina respectively. You remember that match, right? When one moment of madness leaves you scratching your head and wondering what the hell just happened. Nothing like a sucker punch quietens down a previously raucous stadium. The natives were stunned.
Two weeks ago, I stated my preference for playing Atlético Madrid in the semis. If Atlético Madrid’s goal came in the 82nd minute of the final, the pain would be excruciating. Somehow, I’m not surprised, Arsenal will always be Arsenal. We don’t like to do things the easy way – you know – step on the opponents neck when they’re one man down and reeling. You did wonder whether this was going to be another Man United-esque performance where Arsenal would throw everything including the kitchen sink, and yet only an Alexandre Lacazette goal would stand to be counted.
Gift Horses Don’t Like You Looking In Their Mouth
For sure, the right Arsenal turned up last night. Quick off the blocks with speed and crisp passing. Sime Vrsaljko was the first casualty, a second yellow card within 10 minutes guaranteeing the Atlético defender an early bath. Within 3 minutes of that, Diego Simeone decided he wanted to check out the Arsenal Director’s box, just in case he got a job at the Emirates. It’s often said that going down to 10 men can galvanize the remaining players. With a well drilled defence, it was clear that Atlético were going to revert to salvage mode, the first tie seemingly out of their hands. Smart strategy you would argue, close shop and try recover back home.
The onus was on Arsenal. Patience was required, our full-backs both capable of stretching the Emirates turf and tiring the remaining 10 opponents. For this, Granit Xhaka was key; spraying the ball from left to right at every possible opportunity to use Monreal and Bellarin to stretch the opponent. The Arsenal heat map at half-time was interesting, 7 of our players literally camped in the Atlético final third. Arsenal huffed and puffed, but Oblak refused to let the visitors door tumble down. That dreaded question lingered. Are we going to rue the missed chances?
Woe betide you if you think a lion that has been rained on is a pussy cat
Any tactical observer would have known Atlético’s strategy. Absorb the relentless heat and punt the long ball up the field, or wait to counter attack. It didn’t matter that Arsenal had 76% possession in the first half and 83% in the second. Atlético still had the skill, the quality and the ability to punish any team in Europe regardless that they were 10 down. Antoine Griezmann had already given notice several times that he wasn’t just there to make up the numbers. Lose the game or not, an away goal for them would be a good day at the office.
It took a Jack Wilshere cross and an Alex Lacazette salmon-like leap to breach Oblak’s goal in the 61st minute. You could feel the relief at the Emirates. 6 minutes later a Lacazette cross was begging for Welbeck to throw himself at it – just a touch, any touch, but alas, the second goal didn’t come. Aaron Ramsey beautifully did his ghosting act into the box, but Oblak was equal to the challenge, making an excellent save to push the goal bound ball out for a corner.
Who Said Route One Doesn’t Work?
You’re thinking, 80 minutes guys. Take the ‘One nil to the Arsenal’. Pull the shutters down, shut shop and let’s call it a night. More goals would be nice, but a single goal also works. The script was written; Welbeck losing the ball; Jose Maria Gimenez punting the ball forward; and then the pantomime. There is no excuse for a player of Koscielny’s calibre and the club captain to have a howler like that in the 82nd minute. The worry at that point was whether Arsenal would panic and even do something more ridiculous. The sucker punch delivered, the only other job remaining was to close out the game and focus on the return leg.
For many, the end of the match must have left a bitter taste in the mouth. In the cold light of day, 1-1 in a semi-final tie against Atlético Madrid is a decent score under normal circumstances. Last night was not normal. The gods handed Arsenal a gift in the 10th minute; the natives were back and totally behind the crowd in an electrifying atmosphere; and it was Arséne Wenger’s final European game at home for Arsenal. It’s easy enough to ruminate about the lost opportunity, the chance to even kill off the semi-final in this first tie, but we are where we are.
Did Someone Mention Old Trafford?
I don’t know about you, but I feel this weekend’s match against United is a total distraction; a Premier League dead rubber if ever there was one. Arséne should just put the Chuckle brothers – Chambers and Holding, throw in Kolasinac, Iwobi, Nketiah, Reiss Nelson and the lot and let them enjoy themselves. Oh, that fella called Aubameyang too. He needs to be kept gainfully employed.
The rest of the team should focus, get themselves in the right head space and understand they have a cup final on Thursday in Madrid. We’re 180 minutes away from a trophy and that takes precedence over stroking the egos of Moaninho and that fella that used to play for us a few months ago.
Have a great weekend good people.