Braga 2-0 Arsenal: They Hit Rock Bottom, and Keep on Digging
I said tonight's wasn't a big game- but defeat has made Partizan at home into a massive one.
One of this team's myriad flaws is that they get bogged down in bad runs of form. Some teams come out fighting after a disappointment. Arsenal tend to sulk, whine, wallow. And this ugly characteristic was evident again tonight.
Great man though he is, Arsene Wenger embodies the side of Arsenal that fosters resentment, as well as he does the side that everybody loves. He is a sore loser and his team are sore losers. You could say that his reluctance to ever blame things on his players is a tactic used to protect them; if that is the case, I think it has been backfiring for a while now.
It is true that the officiating was generally poor. Carlos Vela was clearly taken out in the Braga area. It was the kind of decision that even the worst of referees would usually get right. But this one, and his "behind the goal" partner, missed the foul. To compound things, he brandished a yellow card at the luckless Mexican.
Then there was the injury to Eboue. Wenger claimed afterwards that the Ivorian had been kicked out of the game. I remember a couple of bad tackles but Eboue's not averse to dishing out a few of those himself. In fact he's committed some disgusting ones. I'm just being balanced here. He should have been sent off against Barcelona in the Champions League final, almost straight after Lehmann walked the plank, for a knee-high assault. And was dismissed in the '08 0-4 against United for something similar. Maybe Wenger was suggesting that there was systematic rough stuff from Braga but I'm sure I've seen worse.
In any case, he shouldn't hide behind that. The injury to Eboue, which looks bad, meant Arsenal were down to ten men for the remainder. But the remainder was only about seven minutes plus stoppage time. A draw against poor opposition was going to be disappointing in itself, but it would have been enough to ensure progress to the knock-out rounds. Surely even Arsenal could keep it relatively tight for a few minutes against this rabble...
Eboue had barely departed before it happened. What a soft goal. Trademark Arsenal. After a free kick was cleared by Braga, they launched a simple ball right up the middle, and Matheus was through. That simple. He knocked it past Fabianski, and for the FIFTEENTH consecutive away game in the Champions League, Arsenal had conceded.
With the centre halves forward, Denilson had been left to man the fort. He was beaten so easily. Abdication of responsibility has become his calling card.
But think about it for a moment. At 0-0, Arsenal are going through- and with minutes to go they concede a counter-attacking goal of such pathetic simplicity, it takes the breath away. This kind of self-harm has become habitual. You usually only see this kind of goal when a team is madly chasing a goal and has abandoned any sense of caution. But Arsenal can do it at any time. The desperation should have been Braga's. They were on their way out. Instead, Arsenal get caught over-committed. Staggering stupidity.
Having fallen behind, there was an excuse to get caught again on the break, and Arsenal did in the game's final moments, with Matheus again released into the gaping hole in front of Fabianski. Three Arsenal men caught up, but seemed to obstruct each other more than their opponent, who was allowed to check on to his preferred left peg and bury an unerring shot in off the crossbar. A fitting end to a dismal night.
The misery does not stop there, though. Fabregas is set for another lay-off after pulling up with yet another hamstring injury- now both his legs are riddled. This raises more questions. Wenger made seven changes after Tottenham. Surely Fabregas should have been first in line for a rest. I know that hindsight is 20:20, but I was already thinking that it was stupid to play Fabregas before he went off. If Wenger thought that he could navigate this fixture using the full extent of the squad, why not make use of its best-stocked area- creative midfielders? Nasri, Rosicky, Wilshere. All of them can be deployed in the same position as the now-knacked skipper.
Arsenal have now made an absolute meal out of a pisspoor group. Braga, Partizan, Shakhtar: these are not particularly good teams. Arsenal's forte recently has been lording it over the dregs of Europe and England, but even that strength seems to be deserting them. While Braga and Shakhtar were both smashed at the Grove, home form in general has been uncharacteristically poor this season. Three defeats already, and some of the wins unconvincing. The natives will be restless when Arsenal line up against Partizan. The Serbs have not yet collected a single point and the pressure will be on to make a convincing statement. And at the moment this team is not delivering the statements it needs to.