By Richard Clarke in Porto
For a side whose reputation has been built upon the beautiful game, this was Arsenal’s version of “winning ugly”.
Of course, Arsène Wenger’s side only drew in Porto on Wednesday night but the point was enough to send them through as the winners of Group G.
Both teams came into the game well aware that a stalemate would see them progress — no matter what CSKA Moscow could do at Hamburg. That fact seemed to hang over the game for the entire 90 minutes.
Porto were the better side on the night and will point to Ricardo Quaresma’s two drives against the woodwork in the early stages of the second half as an indication of their superiority. However, aside from that, Jens Lehmann had few real alarms. They came for a point and got it. But there was precious little entertainment in the process.
Champions League Group G will not be looked upon as vintage Arsenal by any means. But last year’s runners-up achieved their aim and, at this stage, does anything else matter?
Wenger was already without Thierry Henry through suspension and, somewhat surprisingly, chose to leave another striker, Robin van Persie, on the bench. Emmanuel Adebayor was asked to plough a lone furrow up front and Mathieu Flamini was brought in to bolster the midfield.
Undoubtedly the move was inspired by the fact Arsenal only needed a draw to win the group. The last thing Wenger needed was to concede an early goal as they had in Premiership recent games.
The Estadio do Dragao cuts an imposing figure on the Porto skyline. It filled slowly for tonight’s decisive fixture but, by kick off, booming music and the traditional card show from the stands made for an expectant atmosphere.
Both sides knew a point was enough but Porto had to win the game to win the group and therefore ensure a draw against a second-place side from elsewhere.
The opening moments were cagey with most of the pressure coming on Lehmann’s goal. In the sixth minute, Gael Clichy clipped Bosingwa on the right. Quaresma floated the free-kick to the far post where centre back Pepe beat the German keeper to the ball but directed his header over the bar.
In the 12th minute, Gilberto gave the ball away in midfield and Raul Meireles hacked the ball when he should have called Lehmann into action. Midway through the half, a fine string of Porto passing ended with Helder Postiga gently volleying the ball into the keeper’s midriff from long range.
To this point, Arsenal were defending reasonably well and, most of the time, were passing their way out of trouble. But they still had not mustered up a shot.
It was pretty sterile stuff.
In the 25th minute, Fucile and Postiga combined cleverly on the left and Quaresma’s extravagant flick caused Lehmann some concern at the far post.
A shot from Lisandro Lopez flew dangerously into the area and then, five minutes from the break, Paulo Assuncao thundered in a shot from range. The haste at which Lehmann flung himself to his left illustrated his concern.
Inbetween those opportunities, Arsenal had their first shot on goal. Although Kolo Toure’s long-distance trickled well wide it was the first the visitors created anything going forward.
The visitors did create a promising opening in the dying seconds of the half. Fabregas fed Hleb in the right hand channel. The Belarus international got to the byline but his cut back was cut out.
Three minutes after the restart Porto should have taken the lead. Lopez sent Assuncao roaring down the right. His pull back from the byline evaded everyone except and fell to Quaresma at the far post. The 23-year-old’s low shot rebound back off the base of the post.
Fabregas curled a free kick into the hands of Porto keeper Helton a few minutes later. But just before the hour Quaresma capitalised on Djourou’s hesitancy on the edge of the area and his cross-shot hit the woodwork in exactly the same place as his previous effort.
The Portuguese midfielder howled at the heavens in frustration.
The second half was certainly more lively than the first. The game was more stretched and there were openings for both sides. Neither took them.
CSKA had trailed in Hamburg early on but, midway through the half, the Russian side were in front. It meant a positive result here would send the victor top and the loser out.
If this was communicated to the players then it would only turn a cautious game into a virtually paranoid one. Certainly the last few minutes petered out into nothing.
But, ultimately, at the full time whistle both sides had got what they wanted. Porto were through and Arsenal were top.
Referee: Markus Merk
Copyright 2018 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.