What price that on full-time, his post-match interviews done, Dimitar Berbatov returned to his dressing room seat, tapped a Gauloises from its packet, and wondered aloud why it is that eight years since he first came to England, this Arsenal team are still making the same old mistakes.
At 34, and strolling to the end of a singular career, Berbatov was one of the problems Monaco posed which Arsenal could not deal with, but he was by no means the only one. This was supposed to be the plum draw of the Champions League round of 16 but having avoided the big beasts that have terrorised them in previous seasons so it was that Arsenal fell to the team from the principality that are such a part of Arsene Wenger’s past.
In the aftermath Wenger did not spare his team. Their defending was “suicidal”, he said, and they had lost their “nerves and rationality” when, having reduced the margin to 2-1 in injury-time, they conspired to concede a third on the counter-attack to the substitute Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco. “It was,” Wenger said ruefully, “more heart than brain”.
Approaching his 19th anniversary at the club, Wenger does talk as if this team had just been handed to him to manage in the last few weeks. But he knows their flaws as well as anyone else and he seems unable to change them. One of Arsenal’s key deficiencies was the finishing of Olivier Giroud who snatched wastefully at his chances while the veteran Berbatov tucked his away with the stately calm of a man who knew exactly what he was doing.
There was something poignant about it being Monaco, the club at which Wenger made his reputation and a team so delighted with their victory that the principality’s Prince Albert II came on the pitch to salute the fans at the end, then proceeded to give a live television interview and had his picture taken in the away dugout.
Giroud was substituted after missing three prime second half chances and ran off to more than a murmour of approval by the home fans at the decision by Wenger. Then Arsenal were two goals behind, a margin they reduced with substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal before the roof fell in again. Wenger said that his team had “forgotten” that this tie was 180 minutes and in going for the equaliser had left themselves vulnerable
In three weeks’ time they must go to Monaco and hope to score three goals against a team that has the best defensive record in France’s Ligue 1. Then again, you would not bet against Arsenal scoring the goals. It is hard to believe they will not concede more.
Injuries had ravaged Monaco’s usual back four and when Danny Welbeck turned the Nigerian right back Elderson and sent a shot from the right channel over the bar in the first two minutes you did wonder whether this could be a step too far for the visitors. Santi Cazorla got down the left moments later and crossed imaginatively. There seemed to be a mood about Arsenal that they were ready to get the job done.
Alas for Wenger, it seemed to evaporate far too quickly and the energy in the centre of the Monaco’s midfield was more than a match for their Arsenal counterparts. By the mid-point of the first half it was clear that they had lost their way. Mesut Ozil tried to clip a pass through the middle, succeeded only in giving it away and the groan from around him told you that too many had seen this before.
Arsenal did not muster a single attempt on target on Danijel Subasic’s goal for the entirety of the first half and the longer that it went on, the more you could see the sting coming.
Monaco scored from a quick sequence of passes that began with a long kick downfield by Subasic. Berbatov won the header and it dropped to Almamy Toure on the right side who kept possession well and fed the ball inside to Moutinho. From there it went to Geoffrey Kondogbia, an excellent performer. His shot brushed the chest of Per Mertesacker and wrong-footed David Ospina.
The Colombian goalkeeper got nowhere near the shot and there was a rebuke for Mertesacker from Wenger who observed that the “most dangerous deflections are when you don’t face the ball”.
Such are the rewards for positive play and a willingness to get the ball forward decisively. Monaco got better as the game went on. The goal focussed Arsenal minds for a while but even in the remaining seven minutes, they struggled to fashion a single chance.
While Giroud’s misses in the first half had been chances that he forced his way into, as the second half began he started to spurn more obvious, less-excusable opportunities. And the more he missed, so the worse it became for him from a crowd that was running out of patience.
In the first minute after the break Sanchez broke down the right and crossed to the near post where Arsenal’s French striker was on hand to steer the ball wide of the post. It was not his worst miss but it was of the variety that gets noticed at a level where the margins are so fine.
Then, Giroud headed over from close range from Ozil’s cross from the left and the unease grew. But it was nothing compared to the dismay at the great counter-attacking second goal scored by Monaco minutes later, the kind of goal that might still be said to be straight out of the Arsenal playbook – although not on this night.
It began when the centre-back Aymen Abdennour won the ball tenaciously from Sanchez and drove forward with the Arsenal striker still snapping at his heels. At the limit of his efforts, Abdennour fell backwards while dividing what remained of Arsenal’s defence with a pass into the feet of Anthony Martial whose run forward had created a two against one imbalance in Monaco’s favour.
That the other one was Berabtov, formerly of Tottenham Hotspur among others, only added to the pain for the home fans. There were three Arsenal defenders converging on him at pace when finally Berbatov pulled the trigger, so to speak, but if he noticed them it never showed.
Minutes later Giroud skied a rebound after Sanchez’s shot had been saved and Wenger had seen enough. Theo Walcott came on and had just one shot of note in the 65th minute. Only moments after the board went up for time added on did Oxlade-Chamberlain curl in a right-footed goal that changed the mood. Changed it until Ferreira-Carrasco’s second break restored the two-goal margin and the silent exodus began in earnest from the home fans.
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