By Richard Clarke at the Donbass Arena, Donetsk
Suddenly Group H does not look quite so easy.
Before they travelled to Donestk, Arsenal had amassed 14 goals in three straightforward wins during this season’s Champions League adventure. Another tonight would have all but assured top spot.
However, Eastern Europe is always difficult for Arsène Wenger’s men. They took the lead this evening through Theo Walcott’s early breakaway, but Craig Eastmond nodded a free-kick past his own keeper and, on the stroke of half-time, Gael Clichy was robbed on the right and Eduardo caressed a shot into the far corner.
As at Emirates, the ex-Arsenal striker did not celebrate.
The visitors controlled the game after the break but the closest they would come to an equaliser was when Jack Wilshere hooked a shot wide in the opening minutes.
After five straight wins, defeat is always damaging. But this one can be redeemed. Shakhtar, the closest challengers to Arsenal, are now out of the way. Both teams are tied on nine points with Wenger’s men holding the advantage in the head-to-head.
If they win their last two games they will still finish on top.
Arsenal still have control of Group H but their grip has been loosened by defeat here tonight.
Wenger made a welter of changes to the side that had left it so late against West Ham on Saturday.
Cesc Fabregas (hamstring), Andrey Arshavin (virus), Denilson (groin) and Alex Song (calf) were all back in London. Meanwhile Marouane Chamakh, Laurent Koscielny and Bacary Sagna were left on the bench.
Nicklas Bendtner was the lone front man. Emmanuel Eboue and Johan Djourou came in at right back and centre back respectively.
Loyalty demands that any Arsenal fan must love Emirates Stadium more than any other football ground. But, in the eyes of this observer at least, the Donbass Arena is a tempting mistress. It is cavernous yet intimate, daunting yet inspiring – an awesome amphitheatre.
But, of course, the home fans made the atmosphere. The noise was intense as the two teams walked out and every early touch by the visitors was whistled.
In the opening seconds, Darijo Srna curled a free-kick into the midriff of Lukasz Fabianski and, just before Walcott scored, Dmytro Chygrynskiy saw a deflected header fly wide.
But while that was going on, Arsenal were settling to their task. They had already gone close when Nasri weaved inside and grazed the base of the post with a shot from 20 yards out.
And, from the corner that Chygrynskiy won, the visitors took the lead.
It was all so incredibly simple. The ball was half-cleared to Walcott, who clipped a pass to Wilshere. He knocked it back into the path of the scampering Arsenal winger, who turned on the turbo from inside his own half and slotted past the keeper.
It was his seventh goal in eight appearances (four starting and four as substitute) this season.
Suddenly Shakhtar were, once again, the side that had shipped five goals at Emirates Stadium a fortnight ago. The goal drained them of confidence and Arsenal had the upper hand.
The home side needed belief from somewhere. And, in the 16th minute, they so nearly got it.
Luiz Adriano cut the ball back from the left-hand byline and Jadson’s goalbound shot hit Djourou at close range. The ball went back out to the left and, when it was returned into the middle, the same striker hit the post with a firm header.
Soon afterwards, Chygrynskiy’s stinging drive forced a fine save from Fabianski.
By now, Shakhtar had built up a head of steam and were starting to pin back the visitors into their own area. Arsenal’s defending had already got desperate by the time they conceded the equaliser on the half-hour.
Eboue brought down the tricky Willian on the left. Jadson swung over the free-kick to the near post and, though Chygrynskiy ran off claiming the goal, replays showed the ball had only brushed the head of the Shakhtar player but got a more significant touch from Eastmond.
The strike proved that Shakhtar are a confidence side. You can see that from the way they fell apart and Emirates and the invention they gained this evening having restored parity.
In the 33rd minute, Eduardo pass nutmegged Clichy and found Jadson in the area. His snap-shot was saved but, all of sudden, it was Arsenal who needed a rejuvenating glimmer of hope.
Six minutes from the break, Eastmond won the ball in the midfield, rode a challenge then spread the ball wide to Bendtner. His first-time touch found Walcott with only the keeper to beat but the England international was robbed by Srna before he could convert.
That was some form of response and, as half-time approached, it seemed that Arsenal would find the sanctity of half time on level terms. But there would be a sting in the tail.
Just before the whistle, Srna thieved the ball from Clichy on the right and fired a low cross to the edge of the six-yard box. Arsenal fans know all too well that is Eduardo’s territory. Almost inevitably, he sidefooted the ball beyond Fabianski and into the far corner.
As at Emirates a fortnight ago, he kept his counsel having hit the net.
Wenger did not make changes at the break and it seemed the game had altered little in the opening minutes of the second period. But then Arsenal fashioned two fine chances.
In the 53rd minute, Bendtner’s intended pass to Wilshere found Willian on the edge of the area. But the Englishman stole the ball back and, with time to pick his spot, scythed a shot wide.
Shortly afterwards, Rosicky’s dummy allowed Walcott to fire towards the far corner but it had insufficient power to beat keeper Andriy Pyatov.
The game was now a curious scene. As the mist came down in Donetsk as the crowd indulged in a joyous Mexican wave, meanwhile Arsenal were taking control.
In the 64th minute, Clichy hoisted a long ball forward and Sebastien Squillaci, who had stayed up after a corner, powered a header straight at Pyatov when he should have scored. Then Walcott tested Pyatov twice – once from distance, once with a curler.
However, while Arsenal were to have more of the chances and territory, Shakthar were ominous on the break. The pace of Jadson, Willian and Adriano had troubled Wenger’s defence all evening. They failed to test Fabianski in the third quarter of the game but it was not for the want of trying.
Having brought on Carlos Vela and Chamakh, Wenger made his third attacking change with nine minutes left. Jay Emmanuel Thomas for Walcott.
The Englishman set up the Mexican’s swivelling snapshot with five minutes left.
Arsenal piled forward until the final whistle but the closest either side came to a goal was when Olexiy Gai forced Fabianski to fingertip the ball around the far post.
A disappointing night for Arsenal.
- Eboue Yellow Card
- Rosicky (C)
- Walcott 81 Goal!
- Eastmond 58
- Bendtner 73
- Chamakh 73
- Emmanuel-Thomas 81
- Vela 58
- Gai 61 Yellow Card
- Hubschman Yellow Card
- Rat Yellow Card
- Jadson 74
- Adriano 87
- Eduardo Goal!
- Martins 87
- Costa 74
- Teixeira 61