The chaotic 24 seconds which showed Arsenal how fine the margins can be in the Champions League


Welcome back to the Champions League knockouts, Arsenal.

Given the club’s lack of recent experience at this level, this was always likely to be an educative evening for Mikel Arteta’s team. Unfortunately, this learning moment made for a particularly painful lesson.

Of Arteta’s starting XI, 10 were playing in the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time. Only Kai Havertz had featured in a tie of this magnitude before. Porto, by way of contrast, had a 40-year-old Pepe anchoring a significantly more experienced side.

With 93 minutes played, Arsenal seemed to be set for an underwhelming but acceptable draw. Central defender Gabriel regained possession and seemed to have the situation under control. There followed a chaotic 24 seconds, which ended with Galeno bending the ball into the Arsenal net.

First, played it back to goalkeeper David Raya. On his weaker left foot, Raya might have been advised to attempt a more pragmatic option. Instead, he looked down the line, and the pass was intercepted by another Pepe, a player 14 years younger than his namesake team-mate.

Arsenal had more than one chance for a reprieve. As Porto tried to find a way through the centre, the play became congested. Declan Rice stole in, and dragged the ball away from the home side. Before he could make a pass, however, he was tackled.

Sensing the moment, Porto came again. Galeno dribbled infield and looked towards that enticing far corner. Before he could fire off a shot, Rice got back in and produced a quite brilliant tackle. Having regained possession for the third time in less than half a minute, that would surely be that. Arsenal had only to hold out for a matter of seconds to secure the draw.

But Gabriel Martinelli had other ideas. When the ball fell for the Brazilian, he spotted the trio of Martin Odegaard, Bukayo Saka and Kai Havertz breaking into space ahead. He played an ambitious cross-field pass in their direction. It was a moment of naivety, and the Brazilian was not alone in his folly — club captain Odegaard was also pointing to suggest attempting the counter-attack.

The pass was poor, and Porto intercepted. When Galeno next got possession, he took full advantage. This time, a wearied Rice did not get close enough, and Galeno’s arcing shot curled beyond Raya’s dive.

In those 24 seconds, Arsenal had possession of the ball on three separate occasions. Each time, they failed to keep hold of it. “When you give the ball away three times in that area, you cannot do it,” reflected Arteta.

Before the game, as has become customary, Arsenal decorated the away dressing room with posters to make themselves feel more at home. Typically, there were key messages like “unity” and “identity”. They may have to find the wall space for a longer slogan after this — such as Arteta’s post-match maxim, “If you cannot win it, you don’t lose it”.

Arteta bristled slightly at the suggestion his team had been naive. “Well it’s only the last ball, so if in 94 minutes they haven’t had any naivety other than that one, I think it’s a bit cruel to judge it,” he said. “But it’s true that it has had a big impact on the result. A lot of other things they did for the first time here were very good.”

And some things were less good. Arsenal did not muster a shot on target — whenever that is the case, you leave yourself vulnerable to a bolt from the blue like Galeno produced.

There is still plenty of time to recover the situation — 90 minutes in fact. Although, not quite: according to Opta, the ball was in play for just 51.7 per cent of the game. That was the lowest percentage of any of the Champions League knockout ties so far. If Arsenal thought Porto broke the game up at the Estadio do Dragao, just wait until they arrive at the Emirates Stadium with a one-goal lead to protect.

There were 36 fouls in the game — the most in any Champions League game this season — which prohibited Arsenal from gaining any sort of momentum. “It’s something that the referee has to manage,” said Arteta. “We cannot do anything about it and we’ll have to handle it and play our game.”

Corners and set pieces have been a huge weapon for this Arsenal team, but the way they unfolded was a microcosm of the wider game. Typically, Arsenal ask Ben White to make a nuisance of himself at corners, usually by attaching himself to the opposition goalkeeper. White’s mischief-making has helped him become a cult hero at Arsenal.

GO DEEPER

The Arsenal free-kick routine their opponents are struggling to handle

But in Porto, White met his match. Sergio Conceicao could effectively call upon an entire team of Ben Whites, all charged with disrupting Arsenal’s intricate set-piece routines. It illustrated the way Porto intelligently stifled Arsenal, and nullified their threat.

Was Porto’s approach occasionally somewhat cynical? Undoubtedly. But who can blame them? Compare the respective budgets of both clubs — and their recent domestic form — and you can understand Conceicao’s decision to embrace some of football’s darker arts. The strategy has served its purpose.

Arsenal will believe they have the capacity to overturn the deficit. They have never won at the Estadio do Dragao, but have beaten Porto in each of their three encounters at the Emirates Stadium by an aggregate score of 11-1.

“We will learn from it,” insisted Arteta. They will have to. In this battle between youthful talent and experience, experience won.





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