In a season where the term “must-win” has been uttered more times than necessary, that is exactly what the Europa League home match against Atlético Madrid felt like from the moment the semi-final matchup was announced. With the Premier League well out of reach by the season’s mid-way point and an embarrassing FA Cup campaign featuring an exit at the hands of Nottingham Forest, Arsenal’s only chance for silverware and a Champions League berth is through the Europa League.
To compound the situation, Arsene Wenger’s announcement on Friday that he would be stepping down at season’s end after 22 seasons at Arsenal made this competition more than just a shot at silverware and a CL spot - it presented Arsene and Arsenal with the perfect opportunity to send the iconic manager off in winning fashion. In a season full of lows, this was a chance to end on an incredibly high note against one of Europe’s best teams.
No pressure, right?
Much of the build-up to the match involved the potential line-ups for both squads, as it initially appeared that Mesut Ozil would not make the roster due to (yet another) illness. With Henrikh Mkhitaryan already sidelined with a knee injury until the return leg at the very earliest, the loss of Arsenal’s main playmaker would have been a huge blow to Arsenal’s approach to the match. Thankfully, his absence over the weekend was temporary, as he rejoined the squad for the semi-final. With Mohamed Elneny as the only other first team contributor out with an ankle injury suffered against West Ham over the weekend, Arsenal fielded a familiar Europa League lineup, featuring the return of David Ospina as the starting keeper following a solid outing over the weekend:
On the inverse, Atlético was also facing their own injury concerns, as former
Rob Holding victim Chelsea striker and perpetual Arsenal antagonist Diego Costa was initially listed as questionable for the match during the weekend leading up to Thursday. However, he was eventually included in the roster mid-week, because why wouldn’t he be? With Juanfran and Felipe Luis as the only major ommissions for Los Rojiblancos, the Atlético lineup saw a strong lineup with Costa on the bench:
The first half began with Arsenal coming out looking like a team on a mission. Their pace and urgency led to several early looks at goal, as a volley from Alexandre Lacazette six minutes in hit the wrong side of the post, and then a header from Lacazette 30 seconds later forced Oblak into one of several impressive stretching saves on the night. Atlético looked like a team out of sorts as Arsenal had them on their heels.
Arsenal’s inspired play also led to immediate controversy, as Atlético defender Sime Vrsaljko racked up two yellow cards within the first ten minutes, first for stretching to stop Jack Wilshere breaking toward goal, and then for a heavy stamp on Lacazette’s ankle on a late challenge. Things went from bad to worse for the visitors as Atlético’s manager Diego Simeone was sent to the stands after an animated outburst following a challenge by Hector Bellerin three minutes later. The wheels on the Atlético Madrid bus appeared to be falling off before it had even left the station.
Arsenal smelled blood in the water and wasted no time testing Atlético’s keeper, forcing Oblak into a number of crucial saves, as the Slovenian international looked every part the world-class keeper that is being coveted by teams all over Europe. It felt like the dam was about to break as Arsenal opened up the pitch and sent a number of well-placed crosses into the box, but each ball came to no avail. After 30 minutes of dominant play, Arsenal’s steam began to wear off as their attack became predictable enough for Atlético to defend with relative ease.
Despite playing a man down, Atlético started to unlock Arsenal’s defense and take advantage of some very sloppy play by the home side. In the 32nd minute, Los Rojiblancos managed to give Arsenal a scare when French international Antoine Griezmann fired a low shot from the edge of the box, forcing Ospina into a diving save. Four minutes later, Griezmann laced a cracker toward goal after a winding run by Thomas Partey into Arsenal’s box led to the ball at Griezmann’s very capable feet. Thankfully, Ospina was up to the task and parried the shot wide. With ample chances by both sides failing to find the net, the first half ended 0-0 following 2 minutes of stoppage.
As the second half began, Arsenal continued to look like a team that was not aware of its man advantage while Atlético continued to play like a team that was not a man down. A number of Arsenal chances were ruined by too many touches and sloppy delivery as Atleti seemed content to allow Arsenal to dribble around the box before releasing crosses into a crowded box. For the first 15 minutes, it was lather, rinse, repeat.
Finally, in the 61st minute, Arsenal’s efforts paid off. Following another hectic series of play in the Atlético end, a blocked Nacho Monreal ball fell to Jack Wilshere. After a quick give and go with Aaron Ramsey toward the far left side of the box, Wilshere lofted a cross into the six yard box where Alexandre Lacazette seemingly levitated above the onlooking defenders and placed a bouncing header into the right side netting, past the outstretched but beaten hands of Oblak.
Lacazette gives Arsenal the lead against Atletico Madrid with a fine header. 1-0 pic.twitter.com/Ub4iu7feiz— Terje (@TerjeGIFs) April 26, 2018
Following the goal, the momentum was fully back in Arsenal’s favor. After several dangerous chances, including another Lacazette header that skimmed just wide of the far post on a corner, Arsenal looked comfortable and Atlético looked tired as Arsenal camped out in their defensive third, as they seemed content so sit deep and absorb Arsenal’s attack. It looked like Arsenal were going to wear down Atlético en route to an important home win in the Europa League semi-finals.
In what has become a trademark of this season’s squad, an abysmal defensive lapse allowed Atlético Madrid to claw their way back into the game they should have had no business being in to begin with. In the 82nd minute, a long ball into Arsenal’s defensive half saw Laurent Koscielny in a footrace with Griezmann. Koscielny, attempting to clear the ball with an overhead kick for reasons unknown, cleared it right into the forehead of Griezmann just inside the 18 yard box. With Ospina surging off his line, Griezmann’s initial shot was blocked, but the ball stayed in bounds and in Griezmann’s path. With no keeper to beat, the striker slotted the ball over a prostrate Shkodran Mustafi, who lost his footing attempting to block the Frenchman’s shot at the goal line. In that moment, every bit of Arsenal’s momentum had been stripped away as the players could only stand with hands on hips in utter disbelief.
In the 87th minute, in Arsenal’s last meaningful chance on goal, Oblak once again proved his mettle. A cross to Ramsey saw his goal-bound header met with a leaping save as the 25-year old shot stopper got his fingertips on the shot enough to edge the ball just wide of the goalpost. Oblak was called into action in the 92nd minute to stop another Ramsey header, but this one proved much easier to save. With no subs being made by Arsene Wenger, the game ended shortly in almost poetic fashion as a last-ditch Granit Xhaka shot from distance went careening into the nosebleed seats. Much like Arsenal’s performance on the night, it was opportunistic but woefully devoid of direction.
It is rare to feel genuinely gutted after a draw, but this one stung. Arsenal found themselves gifted with a rare opportunity to place meaningful distance between themselves and a European opponent in a must-win match and failed to do so in resoundingly embarrassing fashion. Arsenal fulfilled their role once again as Charlie Brown, forever hopeful that Lucy will finally hold onto the ball, instead of ripping it away and letting them fall on their collective asses.
In many ways, it should come as no surprise, as this year’s iteration of Arsenal has been one of their worst in many, many years, but it didn’t prevent many from having that pesky feeling called hope as the match began to unfold. Even when the results have been positive this season, there has been an overwhelming sense of dread, as though the fans are always waiting for the inevitable “and then...”.
Now, Arsenal must make a return trip to the Wanda Metropolitano next Thursday and hope to find a way to win. There’s also the formality of an away match at Old Trafford against Manchester United sandwiched between the two semi-final legs, a match where Arsenal will face former want-away Alexis Sanchez for the first time and long-time Arsene Wenger foe Jose Mourinho, who more than likely would like to gift Arsene and Arsenal one more loss at his expense. Following the dismal display at the Emirates, however, it is looking increasingly more likely that Arsene Wenger’s tenure with Arsenal will go out with a whimper rather than a bang.