By Richard Clarke in Porto
Defeat No 129 of Arsène Wenger’s 700-game Arsenal career will not live long in the memory.
The Frenchman reached a significant milestone in Porto this evening with one of the most insignificant games of his tenure in North London.
With qualification from Champions League Group G already assured for both sides, they were left to scrap over the dubious honour of top spot. It meant little to both sides and, frankly, it showed on the night.
A weakened Arsenal fell behind to a towering header from Bruno Alves six minutes before half time and their fate was sealed when Lisandro powered home a rocket-shot just before the hour. Porto could have had more, as Arsenal failed to offer much response. By the end, the visitors were just hanging on to the two-goal defeat.
Still, no matter. In the build-up to this game, Wenger had claimed all defeats hurt, however the pain of this one will surely be cured with a victory at Middlesbrough on Saturday lunchtime.
That fact is that defeat here tonight was never going to have any great influence on Arsenal’s progress in the Champions League when it resumes in February.
The same cannot be said in terms of the Premier League if a full strength-side lose at the Riverside Stadium this weekend.
They will surely dust themselves down and quickly move on.
Having left nine first-team players behind in London, Wenger’s side pretty much picked itself this evening. The only question was the formation. In the end, Nicklas Bendtner operated as a lone striker in front of a five-man midfield. Abou Diaby returned after an abdominal strain to take his place at the heart of that quintet. Aaron Ramsey was given another run-out on the right, as was Carlos Vela on the left.
William Gallas, also back after a calf strain, came in at centre back alongside Johan Djourou. They were flanked by two stand-in full backs – Mikael Silvestre on the left and Eboue on the right.
For the record, the absentees were Samir Nasri (ankle), Gael Clichy (hamstring), Cesc Fabregas (knee), Bacary Sagna (flu), Kolo Toure (calf), Robin van Persie (thigh), Emmanuel Adebayor (rested), Eduardo (leg) and Tomas Rosicky (hamstring).
This game was about as low-key as Champions League football gets. With the benefits of top spot only marginal, this was always likely to be friendly fare. The Estadio do Dragao was not quite full but the Porto fans seemed relatively lively and Arsenal had a healthy contingent of 1,400 themselves.
The game itself did a half-hearted impression of ‘competitive’ in first half. But there was an obvious lack of an edge.
In the fourth minute Denilson tossed in a free-kick from the left and a combination of Djourou and Diaby bundled a header over the bar from close range.
In reply, Alves sneaked a low free-kick through the Arsenal wall soon afterwards and Manuel Almunia had to gather low to his right.
That was about it until the 25th minute when Ramsey exchanged passes with Bendtner by the right-hand corner flag and cracked a left-foot shot towards the far corner. Helton flung himself full-length to push the ball behind. A fine save.
Porto responded immediately. The wonderfully-named Hulk had already proved to be the most potent Portuguese weapon. He reached the byline and cut the ball back for Lucho to hammer a shot over the bar.
The home side seemed to have woken up. A couple of minutes later, Hulk bundled Gallas off the ball but Lisandro wrongly eschewed the opportunity to return it to his unmarked team-mate and let fly from an angle. Whatever the merits of the opportunity, Almunia had to be at his best to block it.
Six minutes before half-time, Porto did grab the goal they had been threatening. Rolando swung over a corner to the far post where Alves thundered home a header. It was a classic striker’s finish; targeted downwards to the base of the keeper’s feet. Considering Alves is a centre back, his technique was superb.
Arsenal rallied in the final stages but there was an overwhelming feeling they would struggle to respond.
And so it proved.
Nine minutes into the second half, Fernando nudged a perfectly-weighted ball into the path of Lisandro on the right. The Argentinean striker took a touch and then detonated a stunning shot towards the far corner. It was hit with such force that it was still rising when it bulged the top of the net.
Although Ramsey forced a save from Helton, Arsenal were starting to struggle. On the hour, Wenger withdrew the Welshman and Diaby for Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere. It seemed a ‘freshen-up’ for a side who were lacking ideas on the night.
However it did not help. Within five minutes Cristian Rodriguez spurned two mirror chances – he went through on the right and the left only to drag his shots across the face of goal.
In the 73rd minute Lucho spanked a low shot just wide after Gallas slipped on the edge of the area.
To be fair, Gibbs, Wilshere and, another sub, Mark Randall sparked a minor revival in the closing minutes. However the enterprise only produced a free-kick that Bendtner curled limply into the arms of Helton.
It was a fitting way for Arsenal to end the night but crucially their aspirations remain intact.
It is upward and onward from here.
|1. FC Porto||6||4||0||2||9||8||12|
|3. FC Dynamo Kyiv||6||2||2||2||4||4||8|
Referee: Kyros Vassaras (Greece)
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