Arsenal exposed as ten-man Atletico Madrid stand firm
Gunners blow their chances in Europa League semi-final as Madrid grab crucial away goal
Arsenal 1 Atletico Madrid 1
It was, alas, all too familiar in the end for Arsenal fans when a shocking defensive blunder gifted a late goal to ten-man Atletico Madrid. The Gunners will go to Spain next week needing to produce the kind of performance that has proved beyond them for years.
They certainly didn’t show much steel at the Emirates on Thursday evening, unlike their visitors, who produced one of the great rearguards of the season. This leaves them well placed to progress to the final, where, in all likelihood they’ll face Marseille, who were 2-0 winners in their semi-final first-leg against Salzburg.
Arsenal should have finished the night in a similarly comfortable position after Atletico were reduced to ten men just ten minutes into the match following two quickfire yellow cards for Sime Vrsaljko. He deserved a card for the second tackle on Alexandre Lacazette but the first on Jack Wilshere was harsh, warranting only a warning from referee Clement Turpin on a night when the official must have known the first few minutes would be lively.
He showed no clemency, however, to Vrsaljko and Madrid coach Diego Simeone, who was expelled from the touchline on 13 minutes for losing his cool with another of Turpin’s decisions. At that moment Arsenal were odds on to run away with the tie. Indeed they dominated the first-half but Lacazette, Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscielny all spurned good opportunities.
Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that Atletico held firm. They boast the tightest defence in La Liga, having conceded just 18 goals in 34 games, but they were finally broken by Arsenal on 62 minutes when the industrious Jack Wilshere found some space down the left flank and chipped in a cross to the six-yard box that was headed home with precision by Lacazette.
Arsenal should have gone on to score more but Aaron Ramsey was twice denied by sharp saves from Jan Oblak in the visitors’ goal and then – on 82 minutes – disaster.
In their first attack of the second period, Madrid put Antoine Griezmann clear, the Frenchman played onside by the half-asleep Nacho Monreal. He then out-muscled Koscielny to go through on goal. Ospina half saved his shot but the ball ricocheted back to Griezmann who fired home as Shkodran Mustafi slipped while scrambling to clear the danger.
It was a goal that sucked the energy out of Arsenal, leaving them to go to Madrid next Thursday and produce a performance of control, creativity and goals. All this against a side who haven’t conceded one at the Wanda Metropolitano for 1,007 minutes.
For once Arsene Wenger proved incapable of putting a positive spin on a poor result, perhaps no longer able – or willing – to summon up optimism now that he’s leaving. “I think looking at the performance and the way the game went it was the worst possible result for us,” he said. “It feels like an opportunity missed. We could have qualified tonight but it didn’t happen. Their keeper made a lot of saves and they showed their quality by scoring with one chance. But they couldn’t score with a combination, they could only do it with a long ball, so we have to look at ourselves.”
Asked about next week’s second leg, he replied: “What matters is we go there with absolute belief to do it.”
Diego Simeone refrained from airing his views on the referee’s performance in the post-match press conference, other than to say all officials have a “difficult job” and sometimes “makes mistakes”. He was more interested in praising his side for their stubborn defensive play. “To come to a fantastic stadium like this it is the best thing that football has,” he said. “You don’t have any idea how hard it is to defend... the team has to have huge balls to defend for more than 80 minutes.”