Three thoughts on the second leg of the Champions League round-of-16 tie Tuesday between Monaco and Arsenal. The Premier League side won 2-0, but the aggregate score of 3-3 saw the Ligue 1 outfit advance to the quarterfinals.
1. Arsenal go close . . . again
Added time ticked on, and though the ball never left Monaco’s half, Arsenal’s desperation grew as the exit door opened ever more wide.
Once again, Arsene Wenger’s men failed to reach the Champions League quarterfinals. The 2-0 scoreline was not enough, and was in itself a most predictable outcome. In the Champions League, and for the fifth straight season at this round-of-16 stage, Arsenal fell just short.
When Aaron Ramsey drilled in the rebound of fellow sub Theo Walcott’s effort, which had rattled the post, there was a little more than 10 minutes to play for the chance to make Champions League history in overturning a 3-1 goals deficit.
The best opportunity fell to Olivier Giroud, the villain of the first leg but a scorer in the first half, who came close to a second, only to be denied when his attempted volley was clawed from the goal line by Monaco goalkeeper Danijel Subasic.
After that, Arsenal’s chances dried up as the pattern of their recent Champions League seasons was repeated: first-leg catastrophe followed by a second leg in which honour is restored, but progress is not secured.
Last year saw a creditable 1-1 draw at Bayern Munich following a 2-0 first-leg defeat. The season before, a 2-0 win at the same opponent was not enough to prevent an away goals exit. In 2012, beating AC Milan 3-0 at home was not sufficient, either, such had been the apocalyptic thrashing they had suffered at the San Siro.
On Tuesday, after a first-half performance that brought only Giroud’s goal, accompanied by a number of near-misses, Arsenal never quite raised their game to the crescendo required to overturn their habitual fate.
Monaco manager Leonardo Jardim was hardly likely to play a high line, and his defence sat very deep indeed, as his team kept their golden ticket to the next round. The first leg at the Emirates could hardly have gone much better for the Ligue 1 side, to the extent that only true disaster could stop them from making the quarterfinals for the first time since 2004, when they ultimately reached the final and progressed further than Wenger’s “Invincibles.”
Monaco’s was a difficult task and they could only ever invite Arsenal on and hope that their opponents ran out of ideas as time ticked away. There was no way they could replicate the surprise element of that first leg, and as at the Emirates, they defended doggedly.
They dug in as Arsenal yet again flopped in the last 16. Another rescue mission failed.
2. Mixed night for Arsenal’s creators
Wenger’s selection of Mesut Ozil and Danny Welbeck ahead of Ramsey reflected Arsenal’s need for three goals minimum, but had the potential to leave the midfield as open as it had been in the first leg.
Keeping a balance between control and relentless attack has been the biggest quandary in Wenger’s Arsenal career, and as one of football’s gamblers who is happy to leave the back door open to chance, he stayed true to himself.
This time, he almost pulled it off, such was the vigour of Arsenal’s first-half effort — it had to be, there was no choice — that their manager seemed vindicated. A first-half goal was a decent bedrock from which to pull off the monumental task.
One problem with that initial approach, though, is the greater defensive responsibility called on Santi Cazorla. The Spaniard is not much of an auxiliary anchorman, and the opening salvos saw Monaco enjoy far too much comfort on the ball, as both Geoffrey Kondogbia and Joao Moutinho were prevalent.
It was a danger sign, because they were the key performers in Arsenal’s Emirates demise, though both faded from prominence as the Gunners built up their first-half head of steam.
Ozil’s most obvious contribution was swapping shirts with Kondogbia at halftime, the type of practice that causes outrage among fans and pundits, and the drive of Ramsey, once he came on, looked a better fit to breaking down Monaco’s defence.
Yet it was Francis Coquelin, and not the still-ineffectual Ozil, who was withdrawn in the 63rd minute. Wenger had bet the farm again, although his approach was not reckless — everything had to be risked.
3. Some redemption for Giroud
Giroud’s series of misses three weeks ago saw him widely criticised, though many Arsenal fans have been quick to defend him.
Wenger’s strength — and weakness — as a manager is placing great faith in his players, and his fielding of his French compatriot was a brave choice.
The manager could have started Alexis Sanchez in a central role, which might have given Monaco’s centre-backs, who sat deep as they sought to kill the clock, more to think about. Instead, the Chilean played wide on the right.
Giroud headed wide a fine 15th minute opportunity, created for him by Hector Bellerin’s overlapping run. It was a chance to begin the fight back and one that, if taken, could have jolted the French striker. As shown by his 60th minute withdrawal in the first leg, his confidence can drain fast, though he showed strength of purpose in trying to make amends Tuesday.
After 36 minutes, he grabbed the goal that transformed the tie from dead loss to live chance, lashing home the rebound of his own saved shot.
Barely a minute later, Welbeck, another player whose finishing skills make Arsenal less of a goal threat on big occasions than they might be, drilled a goal-bound shot with venom, but the effort cannoned into the shins of Aymen Abdennour.
Both men have their moments — Welbeck’s was last Monday in the FA Cup vs. Manchester United — but were Arsenal to possess a clinical finisher, then such an impossible rescue job might not have been required vs. Monaco.
Giroud showed he was still fallible in missing another golden chance when he angled a Welbeck cross over the bar. The centre-forward looked to the sky in disbelief. Still, he and his English teammate played their parts and did not hide from the task in hand.
Indeed, it was Sanchez, more expected to be a match-winner, who struggled to make an impact aside from being booked, probably incorrectly, when going down for a penalty claim in the first half.