Calamity Cygan adds to jitters at Highbury

Arsenal 1 - Panathinaikos 1
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Arsenal's football, so often a thing of beauty, has at its core a fragility which is threatening to destroy their dreams. Their one-touch, free-flowing football is fuelled by confidence. Drain that from the tank, as Manchester United did at Old Trafford 10 days ago, and Arsène Wenger's team become vulnerable.

Arsenal's football, so often a thing of beauty, has at its core a fragility which is threatening to destroy their dreams. Their one-touch, free-flowing football is fuelled by confidence. Drain that from the tank, as Manchester United did at Old Trafford 10 days ago, and Arsène Wenger's team become vulnerable.

That was underlined at Highbury last night as Arsenal were deservedly held by Panathinaikos. Even the gift of a 15th-minute penalty, converted by Thierry Henry, could not help Arsenal introduce some stability into their wobbling Champions' League campaign. The Greek champions missed a spot-kick of their own yet still deprived Arsenal of two points after Pascal Cygan deflected a hopeful long pot into his own goal with 15 minutes remaining.

Arsenal now travel to the group leaders PSV Eindhoven, on 24 November, needing a victory to retain their destiny in their own hands. Wenger confirmed Sol Campbell was unlikely to be fit for that match.

The draw extended the first team's winless run (it was the thirds who won at Manchester City in the Football League Cup) to four matches. This may not seem much to most teams but it is worrying for the champions. After the match Wenger conducted an hour-long inquest with his players and staff. He finally emerged to put the blame on the team's physical condition, though it is an axiom within the game that players rarely feel tired when they are winning.

"I feel we have had a dip physically," Wenger said. "We are suffering a bit and need to recover but I am confident we will come back, the mental strength and quality of the players is good enough."

Arsenal were also caught out tactically. They expected a physical, defensive approach from the Greeks but, as their coach, Zdenek Scasny, said: "The key was we didn't play the way Arsenal expected us to play, we did not play in defence."

Passing rather than pressing, Panathinaikos settled quickly. True, Dennis Bergkamp had put a shot wide from the edge of the area but Angelos Basinas had gone closer for Panathinaikos, albeit from further out. Then Bergkamp floated a free-kick into the box and, amid the usual wrestling, Patrick Vieira tumbled after clashing with his marker. To general surprise ­ even Wenger admitted he did not think it a penalty ­ the referee pointed to the spot. It was technically a penalty but the offence was holding rather than pushing and if penalties were given on such a basis every match would end 6-6, especially in Europe.

Henry rolled the penalty home but Arsenal failed to push home their advantage and with Highbury subdued it was not until the second period that the somnolent atmosphere lifted.

It took another penalty to inject a sense of urgency. Again it came from a free-kick, curled into the area by Basinas and headed on towards Dimitrios Papadopoulos by Cesc Fabregas. Papadopoulos failed to reach the ball but was brought down by Ashley Cole. "A penalty," agreed Wenger. During Euro 2004 Basinas had taken a nerveless penalty against hosts Portugal. He again aimed for the top right corner but this time sent the ball over.

Nevertheless, the incident convinced Panathinaikos that they could get back into the game. Soon Loukas Vintra advanced on the right and, encountering no pressure, tried his luck. Cygan stuck out his giraffe's neck, and diverted the ball past Jens Lehmann for a fortuitous but not undeserved equaliser.

Arsenal almost restored their lead immediately. Cole broke and Jose Antonio Reyes met his cross at the near post. Kostas Chalkias made a sharp save and Reyes hit the rebound against the bar. Arsenal were not to go as close again and, indeed, might even have lost. Once again Europe is proving difficult to negotiate. They can, at least, draw encouragement from their last visit to Eindhoven, two seasons ago. Arsenal won 4-0 and an embittered home crowd responded with racist abuse.

Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Lehmann; Lauren, Touré, Cygan, Cole; Ljungberg (Van Persie, 82), Vieira, Fabregas, Pires; Bergkamp (Reyes, 71); Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Flamini, Senderos, Hoyte, Djourou.

Panathinaikos (3-5-1-1): Chalkias; Kirigiakos, Henriksen, Kotsios; Vintra, Maric (Moris, 89) , Basinas, Skacel, Konstantinidis; Gonzalez (Konstantinou, 60); Papadopoulos (Mitu, 62). Substitutes not used: Galinovic (gk), Sapanis, Olisadebe, Bykowski.

Referee: L Cantalejo (Spain).

Comments