By Richard Clarke in Sevilla
Arsenal relinquished their 28-game unbeaten run and the lead of Champions League Group H as they went down 3-1 at Sevilla on Tuesday night.
The visitors took the lead in the 11th minute through Eduardo and looked set to dominate until Seydou Keita equalised midway through the half.
Perhaps the pivotal moment arrived in the 34th minute when Luis Fabiano was allowed sufficient space to steer a near-post header into the far corner.
Arsenal did threaten after that but, on the night, Sevilla were the sharper outfit. Manuel Almunia’s goal was under constant threat with the excellent Daniel Alves the most ominous figure in white.
Just past the hour referee Eric Braamhaar appeared to award them a penalty for a handball by Philippe Senderos only to reverse his decision. However with a minute left the official correctly awarded a spot kick after Kolo Toure and Bacary Sagna hauled down Freddie Kanoute. The striker scored himself from the spot.
By that time manager Arsene Wenger had been banished from the dug-out.
Although this defeat was Arsenal's first since April 7 when West Ham won at Emirates Stadium, it could prove costly. Most of the Europe’s big guns are likely to win their groups and, if Wenger’s side do finish second, they could be facing a tougher draw in the Knockout Round.
But then, given the lengthy run they have been on, any opponent will be just as concerned about Arsenal as Arsenal will be of them.
Before kick-off, we knew there would changes given that Wenger had left Emmanuel Adebayor and William Gallas in London despite the fact both were fit. Gael Clichy’s absence was due to a thigh problem meanwhile Robin van Persie (knee), Alex Hleb (hamstring) and Abou Diaby (back) were still out. Mathieu Flamini had travelled but was still troubled by his thigh complaint so it was no surprise to see him on the bench.
The same cannot be said for Bacary Sagna, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott however.
In all there were seven changes, only Emmanuel Eboue, Manuel Almunia, Denilson and Toure retained their places from the 2-0 win over Wigan at the weekend. Armand Traore, 18, made his European debut at left back while Justin Hoyte got a rare start on the other flank. There was experience in midfield with the return of Cesc Fabregas and Gilberto. As at Slavia Prague, Nicklas Bendtner and Eduardo were paired up front.
The steep sides of the imposing Ramon Sanchez-Pijuan Stadium seemed to trap and distil the mood as kick-off approached. The Sevilla fans are known for providing the nearest to thing to an English-style atmosphere in Spain.
By the time the teams had emerged from the tunnel the club anthem had finished and been replaced by raucous voices of the scarf-waving, drum-banging Sevilla supporters.
Kanoute nearly gave them something tangible to shout about in the fourth minute when he latched onto a knock down from Fabiano only to lever his shot high over the bar.
However, as it turned out, this would not be the last time tonight that one side pressured only for the other to score.
In the 11th minute, Eboue’s perceptive backheel sent Bendtner into space on the right. The Dane steadied himself and sent a probing cross inches over the craning neck of a Sevilla defender to Eduardo at the far post. The Croatian showed great presence under pressure to chest the ball down and prod home from close range.
Six minutes later Fabiano went down in the area under a challenge from Senderos but referee Braamhaar waved play on. But it was an isolated incident as by now Arsenal seemed to be strutting.
Eboue was causing mayhem down the right while Bendtner was shrewdly knitting together the midfield and forward lines.
So it was highly surprising to see Sevilla get back on level terms midway through the half. Senderos sliced a clearance to Jesus Navas on the right, his low cross was stabbed away by an off-balance Gilberto and dribbled into the path of the onrushing Keita. The Mali international curled the ball into the top corner of the net with outside of this left foot.
Suddenly Arsenal looked rattled. On the half-hour Gilberto miscued the simplest of passes to Fabiano just outside the area and it took desperate, if perfectly-timed, tackle to prevent Keita scoring again.
It got much worse three minutes later. Traore fouled Navas on the right and, from Alves’ free-kick, this time Fabiano adroitly steered his header into the far corner of the net.
It was turning into a real cup tie. Two minutes later Bendtner bundled into the area and drew keeper Andreas Palop before the passing to Eduardo. The Croatian’s shot was fierce, low and goal-bound but the Spanish stopper recovered superbly.
Four minutes before the break, excellent inter-play on the edge of the Arsenal area saw Fabiano go clear eight yards out. Almunia beat away his rasping shot and Kanoute wasted the rebound.
Just before the interval, a raking ball to the far post from Alves was volleyed towards the far post by Keita. Almunia gratefully held on.
Bendtner would test the keeper one more time before the whistle blew but nothing could prevent Arsenal trailing at half-time.
The second period picked up the break-neck pace of the first almost immediately. Fabiano escaped down the right in the opening moments only to poke an effort wide. For their part Arsenal were lively and enterprising but, at the same time, wasteful.
In the 55th minute, Fabregas made way for Rosicky. The Spaniard had picked up an injury but, even before that, had been very subdued. Still he was afforded warm applause by the home fans.
Arsenal continued pressurising yet it was Sevilla who were peppering the opposing goal. Fabiano touched an Alves cross just beyond the far post then Navas drove into the area only to see his effort deflected just wide.
In the 63rd minute Arsenal failed to clear their lines from a free-kick and Alves, once again, supplied a pinpoint cross for Fabiano to hammer a header wide.
It was a turning into a pulsating, thrill-a-minute tie. And the 64th minute would see surely its most controversial moment.
Alves found space on the right and sent a low cross into the area. Senderos dived to intercept and appeared to chest the ball away. However referee Braamhaar blew his whistle and seemed to point to the spot for a penalty. Arsenal were incensed, surrounding the referee and his assistant on the line.
But, after consultation, the official awarded a drop-ball where the incident had occurred. A reversal of his original decision.
The moment raised the temperature in the stadium another notch. But it was Sevilla who reacted the better.
Alves continued to torment Arsenal on the right as the visitors struggled to mount much going forward.
Wenger brought on Sagna and Theo Walcott but their best effort in the closing stages was when Bendtner kneed a corner just past the post.
With a minute left, the sliding Navas hooked a low ball into the area for Kanoute. A combination of Toure and Sagna bundled him over. The former West Ham striker picked himself up to slot home the penalty.
Finally, on the night and on their run, Arsenal had been defeated.
Referee: Eric Braamhaar
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