Arsenal were made to pay for two awful defensive errors as they were beaten 2-1 by FC Porto in the Estádio do Dragão. The result leaves Arsene Wenger and our boys needing a win at home in three weeks time to qualify through to the quarter-finals.
Injuries meant the team I predicted yesterday started as Denilson slotted in for Alex Song, Samir Nasri and Tomas Rosicky supported Nicklas Bendtner up front and crucially, Sol Campbell and Lukasz Fabianski replaced William Gallas and Manuel Almunia.
This was a game dominated by four incidents: Porto’s opener, Campbell’s equaliser, the missed penalty and the winning goal.
Porto’s opening goal was officially credited to Silvestre Varela but made possible a horrible goalkeeping mistake by Lukasz Fabianski. Gael Clichy could have done a lot better to prevent Varela getting in his cross but this was bread and butter for a goalkeeper with as much talent and ambition as he has.
With our boys rocking we excellently found a way back into the game through Campbell’s thumping header. It was a great moment for the player, made possible by his determination and self-belief and a clever setup by Rosicky. The goal calmed our team, so much so that we had the better of the first half – going close from a Rosicky belter and a Bendtner header – and began the second in a good position.
Abou Diaby was having a marauding game in the centre of the park as Cesc Fabregas was cut down every time he touched the ball. But with the away goal under our belts and Porto getting in behind our wingbacks too frequently, Wenger appeared to ask Diaby to sit deeper to help out the defence. The move essentially backfired as Denilson once again failed to assert himself and Porto went on to win the game.
It may have been a different if Rosicky wasn’t denied the clearest of penalties.
I said a few weeks ago that I was starting to get sick of continuously being denied penalties, but this was the worst so far this season. After beating his marker Rosicky was clearly brought down while he attempted to cross the ball, yet the referee inexplicably waved play-on. It was unfair, ridiculous, preposterous and begs the question: when will referees forget about the Eduardo incident against Celtic and just make the decisions regarding our club based on what is in front of them?
Somewhat inevitably we were punished for that error, even if the manner in which it happened was anything but.
Under little pressure from a Porto attacker a miscommunication between Campbell and Fabianski saw the defender make the softest of back-passes that the goalkeeper instinctively collected. The referee justifiably blew the whistle, demanded the ball back off Fabianski, handed it to one of the Porto attackers and he quickly passed to Falcao who sidefooted into an effectively empty net. It was a shocking moment, eventually made worse by the hope that the goal would be chalked off but wasn’t, and one that has put the tie back into Porto’s favour.
The first thing that needs to be said regarding the goal was that the referee was not to blame. It was a clear backpass, the attacking team should in no way be asked to wait for the defending team to organise for a free-kick and they are well within their rights to take it early. For someone who promotes attacking football, Arsene Wenger’s bizarre suggestion that it should not have been able to be taken quickly was nothing but hypocritical nonsense.
So who was to blame?
It would be easy to blame Fabianski completely but I feel a large part of the responsibility also lies with Campbell. Before the defender makes his microscopic touch the goalkeeper is gesturing quite clearly that he wants to collect the ball, so Campbell’s decision to make contact was a poor one. There’s no denying that the goalkeeper should have reacted by hacking the ball into touch but if Campbell can make an instinctive error to make contact then surely it’s easy to see how Fabianski could do the same by picking up the ball?
Perhaps the hardest thing to swallow was the naivety shown by Fabianski to simply hand the ball the referee. Again this was something of an instinctive decision but he should have punted it into touch before he considered giving it to the referee. Harsh, I know, but these are the sort of moments that provide stark reminders that we continue to lack the mean streak which is so necessary to win titles.
The remainder of our second-half performance was poor as we never really recovered from the second goal. Campbell’s header provided the perfect tonic to Fabianski’s early blunder but a second mistake was just too much for the team. Diaby and Rosicky faded, Fabregas continued to be chopped down every time he got the ball and our only real chance to score came late on as substitute Emmanuel Eboue’s cross for our captain was agonisingly cut out by a Porto defender.
I feel there were some big questions that came out of this game. Is 2-1 a good result? Can we turn it around in the second leg? And perhaps most importantly, what are we going to do about our goalkeepers both now and for next season?
The first two questions are relatively straightforward. No, this wasn’t a good result. A draw or a win would have been a good result and to lose in Porto in the manner we did was nothing to be happy about.
However, we can certainly still win this tie. We will likely have Alex Song and Andrey Arshavin back for the return-leg and even without that pair we have a team good enough to do the job. The first goal will certainly be important but Porto are notoriously bad travellers in Europe and with our home form as good as any side in the Champions League you have to fancy our chances. In my eyes there was nothing to suggest that Porto are unbeatable and I fully expect us to get the job done, even if we do it by the skin of our teeth.
The goalkeeper situation is a complex one and I basically have two suggestions as to what Wenger should do.
The first suggestion is to maintain Manuel Almunia as first-choice until the end of the season, before selling him and and spending decent money on a top-class goalkeeper to go straight into the team. He would then be backed up by Fabianski, Vito Mannone and the apparently awesome Wojciech Szczesny.
The second suggestion is to play Fabianski for the rest of the season. If he performs well keep him on as first-choice for next season and sell Almunia, if not, sell both goalkeepers and go with the plan above.
This might sound crazy after last night’s game but I honestly feel Fabianski could develop into a top class goalkeeper if given a decent run in the team as opposed to facing high-pressure games in fits and starts. It appears that every time he pulls on the Arsenal goalkeeping shirt he is putting too much pressure on himself and it is having a negative impact on his performances.
Perhaps he would do better if the manager pulled Fabianski aside and told him that he’s giving him the opportunity to prove himself this season. It could be argued that it might add MORE pressure on his shoulders, but I feel that a continued run in the team would give him the time to make his mark.
The risk with the second plan is that Fabianski could completely implode and cost us games. But I think that is a risk worth taking, particularly considering the alternatives. Personally I would keep him in.
Anyway, something to chew on after a tough night in Portugal.
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