Tuesday 14 August 2018

Simeone boils over but hit-and-miss Gunners still look undercooked

Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone. Photo: Reuters
Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone. Photo: Reuters

Paul Hayward

Never let it be said that Europe's finest regard Arsenal as a dead club walking. Diego Simeone was in such a manic state in the opening minutes that Atletico Madrid's manager can only have been racked by fear of what the hosts might do to his side in Arsene Wenger's last European game at this ground.

Simeone's spectacular eruption after Sime Vrsaljko had been correctly sent-off re-opened Europe as a potentially happy hunting ground for Wenger, or at least improve his send-off. A shame, then, that Arsenal spent the rest of the first-half missing chances against 10 men, while Simeone hopped from foot to foot in the stands like John Travolta gone wrong. The breakthrough took 61 minutes.

Wenger's European record tells the story of Arsenal's regression more clearly than their drop to sixth place in the Premier League. A coach seemingly built for continental success, he has found the 'mainland' increasingly hostile territory.

The Arsenal manager's 102nd and final European home game here offered a tantalising prospect of a triumphant exit from the club nearly 22 years after he joined it. But this is also Arsenal's first campaign outside the Champions League since 2000, when they were defeated on penalties by Galatasaray in the final of the Uefa Cup - one of two finals lost by Wenger (the other was the 2006 Champions League against Barcelona in Paris).

Another way of seeing it is that Wenger has reached the knock-out stages in European competitions for the 19th consecutive year.

That, however, is an optimistic twist. Arsenal departed the Champions League in the round of 16 seven times in a row. For seven years they could make no greater claim than that they were one of the best 16 teams in Europe.

In all Wenger's time in the Champions League, they reached one final, one other semi-final (2009) and four quarter-finals. Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool have all achieved more in club football's defining tournament.

This season, Arsenal have excelled in the next tier down, the Europa League, scoring a competition-high 29 times and winning eight games.

Yet their semi-final draw was hardly auspicious. It was Wenger's misfortune to be chasing one last trophy against the best team left in the competition: the fierce collective of Atletico, with Antoine Griezmann leading the charge. The lack of self-control from the second-best placed team in Spain and their bench in the opening moments was bizarre.

Simeone, who took over as Atletico manager in 2011, has guided them to two Champions League finals (2014 and 2016) and won the 2012 Europa League.

Wenger used his programme notes to reminisce. Inadvertently he drew attention to how hard he has found Europe to crack.

"This will be my final European night at the Emirates. I don't like to look back too much, I prefer to look forward, but there are some ties that stand out, notably qualifying against Real Madrid in 2006 and beating Barcelona here in 2011," he wrote.

"They weren't just special because of the results but because of the quality of our game. Barcelona were absolutely majestic at the time, so to beat them at the Emirates is of course special."

He added: "We went to the final (in 2006) without conceding a goal. We knocked Juventus and Madrid out that season, and then lost with 10 men in an unfortunate way."

The gloom of the West Ham game at the weekend lifted, partly because Simeone gave the home fans a reason to get behind their team. The crowd here can also start to imagine life beyond Wenger, without the ambivalence that has disfigured the last three years. If Liverpool's supporters set the bar for passion, against Roma, Arsenal's took a step in the direction of full engagement and away from sullenness.

Only a world-class curmudgeon would not want to see Wenger go out with a European trophy in Lyon next month, after 22 years in which two defeats in finals have hardly put tinsel around his work.

© Daily Telegraph, London


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