Berbatov rips up script to expose Gunners failings
Arsenal 1 Monaco 3
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.
What agony for the Arsenal manager who now, at 65, should witness a team that falls prey to the same carelessness and wastefulness that grips this side at critical times and in critical games. Berbatov emphasised one of Arsenal’s key deficiencies: their own striker Olivier Giroud looked half the player, snatching at his chances while the veteran Bulgarian tucked his away with the stately calm of a man who knew exactly what he was doing.
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 at the beginning of injury time.
Wide open at the back as they went for the equaliser, the Monaco substitute Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco broke through twice and scored on the second occasion.
Another cold chapter in the closing years of Wenger’s Arsenal career and now he must go back to the club that was the making of him in France in three weeks’ time to try to score three goals in the second leg. Arsenal might do it but it is hard to believe they will not concede more.
They only had themselves to blame in the first half. Injuries had ravaged Monaco’s usual back four and their coach, Leonardo Jardim, had opted for a formation that more often than not had João Moutinho in an advanced position supporting Berbatov and a midfield that could find itself outnumbered.
Indeed, when Danny Welbeck 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 side form the principality. 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 Arsène Wenger, it seemed to evaporate far too quickly and the energy in the centre of the Monaco midfield was more than a match for their Arsenal counterparts. Why is it that Wenger’s team insist on making life so difficult for themselves when their experience in this competition could pay dividends so much more often than it does?
By the mid-point of the first half it was clear that they had lost their way. Mesut Özil 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 Touré on the right side. He kept possession well and fed the ball inside to Moutinho. From there it went to Geoffrey Kondogbia, an excellent performer in the first half. His shot brushed the chest of Per Mertesacker and wrong-footed David Ospina.
Such are the rewards for positive play and a willingness to get the ball forward decisively. It focused minds for a while but even in the remaining seven minutes, Arsenal struggled to fashion a single chance. Olivier Giroud had shown some promise in the air but Monaco had done a fine job of reducing the key Arsenal threat, that posed by Sanchez, up to that point.
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 the quicker the crowd 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 Özil’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 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 onto the feet of Anthony Martial, whose run forward had created a two against one imbalance in Monaco’s favour.
That the other one was Berbatov, formerly of Tottenham Hotspur among others, only added to the pain. 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. (© Independent News Service)