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Gunners fluff Porto lines

It has been a long route back to the Champions League for Sol Campbell, from Paris to Oporto via Morecambe, but his dreams of a triumphant return with Arsenal last night were dashed by the type of goalkeeping errors that again illustrated the importance of experience on the biggest European stage.

In time, Lukasz Fabianski may turn out to be the "world-class" goalkeeper that Arsene Wenger has predicted, but two ghastly aberrations last night gave Porto a 2-1 lead to take to the Emirates Stadium for the second leg on March 9.

Arsenal deserved sympathy, having shrugged off the absence of several key players to produce some excellent football at times, but they always look a team who will be undone in the biggest matches, if not by a collective lack of experience then by individual errors.

Manuel Almunia has been culpable often enough, but, in his absence, the fall guy was Fabianski, who shovelled Silvestre Varela's cross into his own net and was later involved in a comedy of errors with Campbell as he picked up a back-pass and then stood watching as a quick free kick culminated in the easiest goal of Falcao's life. Campbell must take a sizeable share of the blame for the second goal, which detracted from an otherwise impressive evening's work for the 35-year-old whose only taste of football this season had, until recently, come for Notts County away to Morecambe.

This was his first appearance in the Champions League since he scored against Barcelona in the 2006 final and, after an uncertain start, he headed the goal that brought Arsenal level in the 18th minute.

Inexperience

He was not the weak link that many feared he would be; inexperience, as ever, is the greater problem for Arsenal, along with the concern that none of their goalkeepers is up to the job.

Knockout ties in the Champions League tend to fall into one of two distinct categories -- cagey or compelling -- and this, right from the start, belonged among the latter.

It was a game played, as Wenger would put it, sans frein a main -- without the handbrake. It was two teams committed to playing free-flowing, attacking football and, for a player such as Campbell, who had not played at this level for nearly four years, it must have been a far cry from Coca-Cola League Two.

There was an uncomfortable moment in the second minute, when Campbell seemed to be wading through treacle as he tried in vain to keep up with Hulk, the young Brazilian whose nickname paints a rather deceptive picture.

Campbell recovered to tackle the Porto forward, but the ball fell to Ruben Micael, whose first-time shot was saved by Fabianski. Moments later, Campbell was at full stretch again as Hulk shot narrowly wide. A long night was in prospect for Arsenal and their veteran defender.

Level heads were what Arsenal required and, in Campbell and Thomas Vermaelen, they had two central defenders who stood up assuredly to each wave of Porto attacks. But behind them, in the position where composure and concentration matters most, Fabianski gave Porto the lead with the type of blunder that Wenger, in the pre-match press conference, had insisted would not happen.

It was a truly terrible goal. On another night, the finger would have been pointed at Gael Clichy, whose recent travails at left back continued as Varela turned him inside out before striking a right-foot cross. That should have been the end of the matter, with the cross struck too close to Fabianski, but the goalkeeper got his angles and his footwork all wrong.

Before he knew it, the ball was in danger of speeding past him and, although he recovered to get a hand to it, he somehow shovelled it into the net.

Just like Manchester United away to AC Milan 24 hours earlier, it was the worst possible start for the English club, but, unlike Alex Ferguson's team, Arsenal were at least showing some purpose and confidence when they were in possession.

Nicklas Bendtner was holding the ball up intelligently and Cesc Fabregas, Tomas Rosicky and Samir Nasri were supporting him at every opportunity. Nasri, in particular, was in the mood, popping up to test Helton twice in the opening 15 minutes.

It was from a Nasri corner, after Bendtner's ambitious shot was deflected wide, that the Arsenal equaliser came. The cross was swung in from the left, flicked on by Vermaelen at the near post, sent back into the danger area by Rosicky at the far post and headed into the roof of the net by the unmarked Campbell, to the astonishment of everyone inside the ground, perhaps not least himself.

Disaster

Arsenal were the better team for the remainder of the first half, but, with Helton saving well from Rosicky's shot and Vermaelen's looping header, they were not getting the kind of helping hand that their opponents had been given by Fabianski. The football remained fluent and the pace frenetic, with Abou Diaby and Bruno Alves booked and Fabregas involved in a spat with Ruben Micael as they left the pitch at half-time.

Rosicky felt that he should have had a penalty within minutes of the restart, when he fell under a Bruno Alves challenge, but then, suddenly, disaster struck for a second time.

Campbell, under pressure from Ruben Micael, passed back to Fabianski, who inexplicably picked the ball up. Equally inexplicably -- though entirely in keeping, it must be said, with Arsenal's Corinthian spirit -- Fabianski dropped the ball at the referee's feet, allowing Ruben Micael to tap the free kick to Falcao, who stroked his shot into an empty net. Farcical.

Wenger vented his fury at the referee, Martin Hansson, but the fault lay entirely with his players.

In any case, the quick free kick was quite permissible back in Thierry Henry's pomp. © The Times, London


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