Tuesday 24 April 2018

Matheus on double to rock Gunners

Braga 2
Arsenal 0

Arsenal's Nicklas Bendtner reacts after missing a chance during last night's Champions League match in Braga
Arsenal's Nicklas Bendtner reacts after missing a chance during last night's Champions League match in Braga

braga 2 arsenal 0 Jeremy Wilson in Braga

The theory that Arsenal's great weakness is mental rather than technical was further reinforced during a dramatic Champions League capitulation last night.

Having been coasting to what would have been an 11th consecutive qualification for the last 16, they conceded twice in the last eight minutes to suddenly leave Group H hanging in the balance.

Arsenal must now beat Partizan Belgrade at the Emirates in two weeks to be sure of their place in the knockout phase. Even then, with Shakhtar Donetsk also winning last night, Arsenal would probably only progress as runner up and to a potential tie against Real Madrid or Barcelona.

On a terrible night, captain Cesc Fabregas was also forced off amid fears that he had suffered a recurrence of his hamstring injury and Emmanuel Eboue had to be stretchered off following a tackle by Matheus. With all their substitutes already used when Eboue suffered his injury, Arsenal were reduced to 10 men and were then twice clinically punished by Matheus.

Arsenal were also largely toothless in attack. Indeed, should Nicklas Bendtner indulge in another daft verbal outburst about his lack of first-team football, Wenger's perfect riposte would be to show him a recording of this match.

The depth of a squad that Wenger regards as the strongest in his 14 years at Arsenal allowed him to make seven changes from the team that were beaten against Tottenham without weakening his personnel.

Fabregas passed a fitness test on the hamstring that has been troubling him all season, while Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, Bendtner, Johan Djourou, Eboué and Tomas Rosicky were recalled to the starting line-up. The fact that Aaron Ramsey had played 45 minutes earlier in the day for the reserves on his comeback from a double-leg fracture underlined the competition for places.

Braga go by the nickname 'Os Arsenalistas' because of the admiration their former coach, Jozsef Szabo, developed for Arsenal following a trip to Highbury in the 1930s. They even wear a red and white strip that is almost identical to that of Arsenal's home kit.

swiftly

It caused no early confusion, however, as Arsenal were swiftly into their stride. After being so constrained for England last week against France, Gibbs showed why he is so routinely compared to Ashley Cole by bursting forward beyond the Braga defence down the left.

Moises just beat Bendtner to the resulting cross, but Braga were unable to heed the warning as Arsenal's best first-half play continued to emanate from the flank of Gibbs and Rosicky.

It was not until the 32nd minute that Arsenal provided the first actual test of Braga goalkeeper Felipe when Fabregas' dipping free-kick was comfortably saved. Felipe then also reacted quickly to prevent Walcott from converting Fabregas' intelligent through-ball.

Having been carved into the face of a quarry, Braga's Estadio Municipal might be among the most distinctive and picturesque in world football but it is hardly atmospheric. The unique setting means that there are stands on only two sides of the pitch and, despite Braga having the pre-match possibility of qualifying for the last 16, there were vast spaces among the available seats.

This could be explained by a combination of a general strike in Portugal, the fact that Braga are languishing in 10th in their domestic league and had suffered a 6-0 drubbing at the Emirates earlier in this Champions League group.

Braga created sporadic first-half danger, particularly whenever they launched direct balls into Lukasz Fabianski's penalty area. This was evident when Luis Aguiar's free-kick found Moises unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box, with Arsenal fortunate that the cross was just high to prevent the Braga centre-back from keeping his header down. Lima then also shot powerfully just past Fabianski's right-hand post.

Arsenal began the second-half with marginally more purpose, although the match still generally had all the intensity of the traditional pre-season friendly against Barnet.

Wilshere forced a rash challenge from Moises on the edge of Braga's area, but Walcott's curling free-kick could only brush narrowly over Braga's goal. Again, Braga produced occasionally threatening moments. Matheus cut inside from the right, but shot wide of Fabianksi and then Aguiar was similarly wasteful after pouncing on a poor headed clearance from Sebastien Squillaci.

With Fabregas replaced by Samir Nasri and Carlos Vela introduced for Walcott, Arsenal were denied a clear penalty in the 76th minute. Chamakh had rose to guide Gibbs' cross into Vela's path and the Mexico forward was upended by Alberto Rodriguez only for referee Viktor Kassai to wave play on. Eboue was then stretchered off.

It left Arsenal with a numerical disadvantage and, in a frantic finale, Matheus twice broke clear of the Arsenal defence to emphatically seal Braga's victory. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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