By Richard Clarke in Eindhoven
Arsenal face a nerve-racking night at Emirates Stadium in two weeks time after losing 1-0 at PSV Eindhoven on Tuesday in the Champions League Knockout Round first leg.
The all-important strike came in the 61st minute when a skidding effort from Edison Mendez beat Jens Lehmann and found its way into the corner of the net. Defeat was perhaps harsh on Arsène Wenger’s side who, until that point, had given as good as they got.
However Champions League football is all about making the most of scarce opportunities, something Arsenal amply demonstrated at the sharp end of this competition this year.
In the build-up to this game the Mayor of Eindhoven had promised Arsenal fans ‘the Mardi Gras of the Netherlands’ as the city’s inhabitants celebrated their big annual festival. He certainly delivered.
The question now is whether Arsenal can do likewise in the second leg.
Before kick-off there was only one real issue regarding Wenger’s line-up for his 600th game in charge — who would play at right back after Justin Hoyte (hamstring) joined Emmanuel Eboue (ankle) on the injured list.
The manager had spent the night mulling over playing Johan Djourou or William Gallas. In the end he went for experience. Otherwise the side pretty much picked itself. And, notably, the 4-4-2 formation was back. Last year Wenger had adopted 4-5-1 on the road in Europe. It took them desperately close to winning the whole tournament. In his pre-game press conference the Frenchman suggested the confidence gained from that experience had prompted the change. He felt his side were more likely to impose their game on the opposition.
PSV came into this game with a canny, cagey reputation. Their coach, Ronald Koeman, had been perfectly happy baton down the hatches when his Ajax side needed a point to qualify against Arsenal at the Amsterdam ArenA a few years ago.
No-one really expected them to go for the jugular this evening especially as their leading striker Jefferson Fanfan, as expected, was ruled out before kick-off with a foot injury.
In fairness, PSV did show their fair share of attacking intent in the opening stages. Arouna Kone and Diego Tardelli each provided moderate threats to the Arsenal goal.
The visitors took until the 12th minute to conjure up their first attack — and it very nearly gave them the lead. Rosicky exchanged passes with Henry and darted into the area. His left-foot drive was half-saved by Gomes and trickled towards the unprotected goalline. Carlos Salcido hoofed the ball away from danger before the onrushing Arsenal attackers could force the ball home.
However PSV regained the ascendancy playing neat, tidy yet utterly unpenetrative football. Mendez and Philippe Cocu called Lehmann into action from distance but that was it. Henry’s drive and Rosicky’s curler were equally speculative for the visitors. Each side was giving one another considerable respect.
But all the main flashes of invention were still coming from Arsenal and they had two chances to take the lead before half time. Three minutes from time Henry teed-up Rosicky’s flick for himself and volley goalwards. Unfortunately it was directed straight at Gomes, who batted the ball down and Alex cleared the danger.
With the final kick of the half, the Arsenal captain curled a shot inches beyond the angle of post and bar.
The second half started at the same lukewarm temperature as the first half. However, seven minutes in, PSV nearly grabbed a surprise lead when Salcido’s raking cross drifted over the head of Gael Clichy and was met by Kone on the volley. Fortunately the Ivorian striker ‘shanked’ his effort harmlessly across goal.
It seemed like a momentary lapse by the Arsenal defence and little to worry about.
In the 61st minute Kone found Mendez 25 yards out and the Ecuador international sent a low, skidding shot past Lehmann and into the far corner of the net.
It was less than Arsenal deserved at that point in proceedings and they immediately they set about restoring parity. In the 69th minute, Gomes palmed a rasping drive from Fabregas over the bar. The Brazilian keeper then clutched Adebayor’s looping header after Fabregas had flung over a free-kick from the left.
Julio Baptista replaced Hleb as Wenger tried to chase the game. But, of course, that only played into the hands of PSV’s counterattacking style and Arsenal were nearly caught out 14 minutes from time when Kone roared down the right. Mendez met his cross with a sidefoot shot fortunately Gallas was on hand to boot the ball clear.
Henry’s free-kick was gathered at the second attempt by Gomes but that was about as much as Arsenal could muster in the final stages.
They have it all to do in the second leg.
Referee: Tom Henning Ovrebo
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