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Porto defeat leaves Arsenal with an awkward Champions League problem to solve

Porto 1-0 Arsenal: Galeno’s stoppage time strike sparked some life into a dull contest in Portugal

Miguel Delaney
Chief football writer
Thursday 22 February 2024 02:13 GMT
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Galeno slotted home a late winner for Porto as Arsenal discovered what Champions League knockout games are all about
Galeno slotted home a late winner for Porto as Arsenal discovered what Champions League knockout games are all about (Reuters)

A twist on the night, from one glorious curling long-range effort. It really was something out of nothing. Just when Arsenal’s trip to Porto seemed to be drifting towards the most dismal of 0-0s, Wenderson Galeno took hold and let fly to suddenly leave Mikel Arteta’s side having a lot to do in the second leg of this Champions League last-16 tie. They now must overcome a 1-0 deficit, having seemed to be rather complacently settling for a draw.

It should never have got to this, but then Arsenal never got going. That is perhaps the greatest frustration, as Porto – and, admittedly, an overly officious referee – ensured this was the worst type of stop-start game.

It has certainly stopped Arsenal scoring. After having scored 21 goals in five games, to seemingly end all talk of a staleness afflicting their attack, Arteta’s team went through a blank for the first time since the turn of the year.

That might have been just a blip, made that way by the nature of Porto’s game, but that is something the manager is going to have to be attuned to – not least in the second leg.

Arteta will know they should have done so much more here.

Arsenal’s defeat means they must come from behind at the Emirates Stadium in order to progress (PA)

If you stood back, and assessed the relative levels of the two teams, this was essentially Arsenal playing the equivalent of a mid-table Premier League side. That is how much the economy of European football has changed, although Porto have had their own highly specific problems. The backdrop to this game was civil war around the club and the presidency.

The grand difference is Porto are one of this competition’s great clubs, having lifted the trophy twice. They at least started trying to play with the aura that comes from that, unlike most mid-table sides Arsenal will face.

You could sense it in the way the Champions League anthem was roared out by the crowd in the minutes before the game. That is something that has become a trend at major continental clubs, like Inter and Milan, as if the trophy becoming more elusive has elevated its mystique.

Porto briefly played to the occasion, really going for Arsenal. William Saliba even struggled under pressure he hasn’t faced for some time.

For one attack, David Raya was forced to come out and clear for a throw-in, which raised the vision of Galeno quickly throwing the ball off the goalkeeper’s back and playing it in. The winger didn’t take that, and then wasted an even bigger chance.

On 21 minutes, he was set up for what seemed a certain goal, only to hammer his shot off the inside of Raya’s post. The ball somehow came straight back, only for Galeno to instinctively swipe at it and strike narrowly past the post.

Galeno struck the post and sent a volley wide in the only exciting moments of the first half (AFP)

Both were understandable in the circumstances – one effort a bit difficult, the other too hard – but it still seemed inexplicable that Porto weren’t ahead.

It looked like it was going to be one of those nights for Galeno, where he might live with regret. He made sure that didn’t happen, but in part because the opposition couldn’t make anything happen at all.

Arsenal were quite prosaic, in a way they probably didn’t need to be, but doubtless came from the circumstances. Arteta seemed to have envisaged this as a classic European tie of old, that demanded a tactical discipline.

It was a bit too disciplined, as the only chance they produced in the first half was a Saliba header wide.

Even when Arsenal did let themselves get a little looser, there wasn’t the same coherence to their attacking. A lot of moves were missing the right decision at a key moment. Gabriel Martinelli did superbly to send Joao Mario this way and that, only for the ball in to go nowhere.

Saliba’s headed effort was the closest Arsenal came to scoring in a lacklustre attacking performance (AFP)

Yes, it was one of those nights when the question of why they didn’t sign a striker returned, as was always going to be inevitable.

The gap was there when Bukayo Saka sent a fine cross in to no one. In one moment late on, Martin Odegaard looked set to send the winger through, only for a poor touch to see a move fall down again.

It didn’t help that Porto quickly regressed to a more responsive game, breaking up Arsenal’s flow. The referee aided that, while slowing the game, in calling for virtually every free-kick.

It almost reached parodic levels towards the end, with more technicalities seemingly spotted than in rugby. There was barely any football, until Galeno produced something to grace any pitch.

This is what the Champions League should be about. A beautiful strike swerved around the ailing Raya and into the far corner. Arsenal had warning. They now have a job to do.

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