Friday 18 October 2019

Misfiring Gunners setting their sights on Europa title after dismal draw

Arsenal 1 Brighton 1

Aaron Ramsey says farewell. Photo: Getty Images
Aaron Ramsey says farewell. Photo: Getty Images

Sam Dean

Arsenal will have to win the Europa League if they are to qualify for next season's Champions League. The honest truth is that this has been the case for a little while now, but that statement has been recast as cold fact in the wake of this dispiriting draw at home to a Brighton side who had nothing but pride on their agenda.

Arsenal will have to win the Europa League if they are to qualify for next season's Champions League. The honest truth is that this has been the case for a little while now, but that statement has been recast as cold fact in the wake of this dispiriting draw at home to a Brighton side who had nothing but pride on their agenda.

Brighton's Glenn Murray celebrates his goal with teammates. Photo: Getty Images
Brighton's Glenn Murray celebrates his goal with teammates. Photo: Getty Images

All season, Unai Emery has been speaking of Arsenal having two avenues into Europe's premier club competition. One of those has now been comprehensively closed off by a roadblock largely of Arsenal's own creation.

Three defeats and a draw in their past four Premier League matches is not the form of a side who deserve a place in the top four, and the needless penalty they conceded here was symptomatic of their recent defensive problems.

So on they go to Valencia, where Emery's side have a 3-1 first-leg lead to protect in Thursday's Europa League semi-final. The Spaniard is a master of the tournament, which will help the mood this week, but there were few smiles at the Emirates on a day when Arsenal unquestionably fell short of one of their primary targets.

With only a trip to Burnley remaining, Arsenal must overturn a three-point, eight-goal gap to overtake Tottenham Hotspur.

Brighton's Solly March and Arsenal's Stephan Lichtsteiner rise for the ball. Photo: Getty Images
Brighton's Solly March and Arsenal's Stephan Lichtsteiner rise for the ball. Photo: Getty Images

The boos at full-time showed what the home fans thought of this possibility, before the cheers for the outgoing Aaron Ramsey showed what they made of the club's decision to allow the Welshman to join Juventus on a free.

Ramsey's on-pitch presentation, coupled with farewells for Petr Cech and Danny Welbeck, made this a day for goodbyes. The hope was that it would not also be goodbye to their prospects of finishing in the top four, but the damage to their campaign had largely been done in recent weeks. Their 3-2 defeat at home to Crystal Palace last month feels even more painful now.

"The Premier League is our first target and we did not get the position we wanted," said Emery. "We were very strong at home but in the last two matches the circumstances did not give us the way to win, against Palace and Brighton."

There will be time for discussing what needs to change in order for Arsenal to succeed next season. For Emery, that time is not now.

"It's better to take the focus for Thursday, against Valencia," said the head coach, who knows well that an inquisition is coming from all angles if Arsenal don't win the Europa League.

The mood was much more optimistic after nine minutes of the first half, when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's driven penalty gave Arsenal the lead. Nacho Monreal fell under a challenge from the clumsy Alireza Jahanbakhsh but the contact should be described as minimal, at best.

Rather than being a reason to puff out their chests, the goal seemed to sap much of Arsenal's forward thrust.

Brighton had to push forward, and they looked better that way. Yves Bissouma was darting through the Arsenal midfield at will, while Solly March was causing no end of problems down the left, where he was up against the lesser-spotted Stephan Lichtsteiner.

One particular passage of play, in which Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno passed straight to a Brighton player, was verging on comical for the home side. Such was their lack of composure at the back that it took a full 30 seconds for the attack finally to be stopped.

The Brighton equaliser arrived when Arsenal produced their latest moment of self-induced chaos. The latest culprit was Granit Xhaka, inexplicably pulling the shoulder of March in the box.

It was hardly enough contact to send March down, and the penalty decision seemed harsh, but it was needless. Up stepped Glenn Murray to send Leno the wrong way from 12 yards.

Aubameyang had another chance, and Alex Iwobi claimed for a penalty, but it was Brighton who came closest when Leno was forced to save March's header and Gross fired the rebound over.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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