Three days after a humiliation at home to their greatest enemies, Arsenal's much-changed side found themselves between a rock and a hard place at Braga's extraordinary stadium last night. They not only failed to secure the draw required to reach the second stage of the Champions League for the 11th season in a row, but suffered a second successive defeat in Group H to late goals by a team they beat 6-0 two months ago.
Braga scored two breakaway goals against ten men, Emmanuel Eboué having been carried off on a stretcher after Cesc Fabregas suffered another hamstring injury that will keep him out of this weekend's trip to Aston Villa. Despite all that, the London side should still qualify but they are fortunate that the final match is at home to the weakest team in the section, Partizan Belgrade.
Arsène Wenger, who had made seven changes after the collapse against Tottenham on Saturday, was left furious by the tackle on Eboué and the "useless" new system of extra referee's assistants. He felt the one behind the goal Arsenal were attacking in the second half should have spotted a clear foul on Carlos Vela, who received a yellow card instead for diving. "It is a disappointing result because we played a team that camped in their own half and we've somehow lost," he said. "Eboué has been kicked off the park without any punishment and we have been denied a certain penalty. What is the fifth official doing if he can't see that? It's an absolutely useless system.
"Other than that, it was a difficult game against a team that used all the tricks to slow the game down. We made a mistake, a lack of concentration and communication, and were punished for it." Eboué, he said, would be out for "a few weeks" with a medial ligament strain.
Although Wenger wanted fresh legs in the team, the benefit was muted. Only four players kept their place from the Tottenham game: Lukasz Fabianski, who could do nothing about the two goals, Sebastien Squillaci, who might have done better, Fabregas, who had to come through a fitness test on the morning of the game, and Denilson. There were absentees, too, among the Arsenal support, many of whom were unable to take an extra day off once they learnt that it would be impossible to get out of Portugal because of the general strike which began at midnight.
Those loyalists who did make it must have been startled by the stadium, which was hewn out of rock for Euro 2004 and still has only a cliff behind each goal. Braga have thrived since moving there and last season's runners-up position was their best ever. Even if the margin of defeat at the Emirates was an exaggerated reflection of that game, they still did not look like a team who should have been beating Arsenal. But Wenger's team lacked the focus and concentration that he had promised would return in the wake of the Tottenham match.
They attacked from the outset without producing either the final pass or a yellow shirt to get on the end of crosses whipped over by Kieran Gibbs and Theo Walcott. Both did some good work without finding Nicklas Bendtner in the right place to profit. Braga, who had not played at all for ten days, were no better and mainly worse, so it was fully half an hour before either side managed a genuine threat. Then Eboué ventured forward to win a free-kick, which Fabregas curled over the wall, forcing the goalkeeper Felipe to concede a corner.
That turned out to be Arsenal's only shot on target, which made the other notable statistic – 64 per cent of possession – all the more disappointing. If the defence was generally comfortable until the last few minutes, the danger was that Braga, who had to win, would do as Tottenham had done on the counter-attack in the second half. So it proved.
Matheus had a chance to punish Wenger's team but drove Leandro's pass wide. The home side took heart from that and in the next attack three minutes later Squillaci could only head out Alan's cross to the edge of the area, from where Luis Aguiar sent it wide.
Arsenal's prospects were not improved when Fabregas indicated that he needed to come off with another hamstring problem. He had stretched in vain for a through ball from Bendtner.
Marouane Chamakh soon came on for Bendtner and Walcott was replaced by Vela, who had only just arrived when he tumbled over Alberto Rodriguez's challenge and received a booking instead of a penalty. Worse was to come. With Eboué carried off after a tackle by Matheus and no other substitutes available, the Braga man was left running free through the middle to score. In the final minute he did even better for a terrific individual goal.
"It is hard to swallow, but now we have to win our last game," Wenger said. "The most important thing for us now is to qualify."
Braga (4-2-3-1) Felipe; M Garcia, Moises, A Rodriguez, Elderson; Vandinho (Viana, 89), Leandro Salino; Alan, Aguiar (Madrid, 80), Matheus; Lima (Elton, 81). Substitutes not used Artur (gk), Mossoro, Silvio, Capela.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1) Fabianski; Eboué, Squillaci, Djourou, Gibbs; Denilson, Wilshere; Walcott (Vela, 76), Fabregas (Nasri, 69), Rosicky; Bendtner (Chamakh, 73). Substitutes not used Szczesny (gk), Sagna, Koscielny, Song.
Referee V Kassai (Hungary).
Man of the match Matheus.
Match rating 5/10.
Partizan 0-3 Shakhtar Donetsk
Shakhtar Donetsk moved top of Group H with a strong second-half showing in Belgrade last night. Taras Stepanenko scored first with Jadson Rodriguez and Eduardo da Silva securing the points.
Results so far Arsenal 6-0 Braga, Shakhtar 1-0 Partizan; Partizan 1-3 Arsenal, Braga 0-3 Shakhtar; Braga 2-0 Partizan, Arsenal 5-1 Shakhtar; Partizan 0-1 Braga, Shakhtar 2-1 Arsenal; Braga 2-0 Arsenal, Partizan 0-3 Shakhtar.
Remaining fixtures 8 Dec Arsenal v Partizan, Shakhtar v Braga.