By Richard Clarke at the BVB Stadion, Dortmund
An 86th-minute equaliser from Ivan Perisic denied Arsenal victory at Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday night.
For the majority of this Champions League Group F opener, Arsène Wenger’s side looked like taking all three points back to North London.
They soaked up significant pressure from the Bundesliga champions in the opening stages but fought their way back into the game and grabbed an all-important goal three minutes before the break when Robin van Persie lashed home.
After that, Arsenal defended deeply and doggedly while Dortmund were pretty but without penetration. Wenger, watching in the stands due to his UEFA ban, may have smiled at the irony of it all.
In the end, Perisic’s strike was not one of the home side’s more fluent moves, it was a speculative effort excuted with excellent technique. But it was perhaps the only way this organised, efficient Arsenal defence were going to be beaten this evening.
And, if Wenger’s men are disappointed with a point in arguably their toughest Group game, then it augurs well for the European adventure ahead.
Before kick-off, Wenger’s main decision had seen him opt for experience and guile over youth and power. Yossi Benayoun made his debut in the hole behind Van Persie when the manager could have pushed up Mikel Arteta and brought in Emmanuel Frimpong alongside Alex Song.
Like Gervinho, the Cameroonian was back after serving out his domestic suspension. Like many, Theo Walcott had thought he was banned after picking up a couple of yellow cards in the two legs against Udinese. However all disciplinary points were wiped clean for the group stages and the Englishman began on the right.
The BVB Stadion was a sight to behold as the teams kicked off. Normally 80,000 fans help to create one of European football’s most intense atmospheres. The capacity was reduced tonight as, for the Champions League, seats had to be installed to replace some of the terracing. However this was still an imposing arena in which the decibel level rarely deteriorated - even when the visitors were in front.
The opening quarter of the game was like the crowd - raucous and lively. In the fifth minute, Van Persie’s half-blocked shot fell to Gervinho. The Ivorian hooked an effort goalwards but Roman Weidenfeller blocked.
Immediately, Dortmund replied. Shinji Kagawa was denied by Laurent Koscielny on the edge of the area but his tackle only nudged the ball to Robert Lewandowski. With Bacary Sagna sprawling to recover, the Pole spotted Kevin Grosskreutz on the left. The 23-year-old had time to select a corner but hoisted his effort high over the bar. Wasteful.
Kagwaga went through and did likewise in the ninth minute. It was a clear chance but not as clear as the one Lewandowski spurned shortly afterwards.
Mario Gotze robbed Kieran Gibbs and his clever flick sent the Polish striker skipping across the area, past Wojciech Szczesny, to leave himself a shot from a narrowing angle. Fortunately he could only pick out the backtracking Sagna, who booted his effort off the line.
As at Udinese in the Play-off, this was an open game - perhaps too open given its magnitude. But Jurgen Klopp’s young side had won the German title last season with a bright, brave passing game. Like Arsenal, it was they only football they knew.
The hosts continued to hold the upper hand even when the game calmed down and Arsenal obtained a greater grip.
The visitors carved out a chance in the 33rd minute when Benayoun’s first-time ball freed Van Persie on the left. He went for his shot early and Weidenfeller touched the ball behind at his near post.
But Dortmund were still the more imposing presence with right-back Lukasz Piszczek looking to get forward at every opportunity. In the 38th minute, one of his centres saw Lewandowski head into the hands of Szczesny.
However, ,Dortmund pressure, Arsenal pace, was the recipe for a goal on the counter. Although speed of thought - not feet - was behind the visitors’ strike three minutes before the interval.
Van Persie slid in to push Sebastian Kehl’s weak pass to Walcott in the centre circle. The Dutchman then got up and sprinted forward in hope of a throughball. Walcott was on the same wavelength and Van Persie raced through before unleashing a venomous shot past Weidenfeller.
Dortmund pushed forward once more at the start of the second half however, before the hour, the only noteworthy effort was Kagawa’s blocked drive.
Naturally, Arsenal had been settled by the goal and were happy to let the home side play their game in non-threatening areas. They knew there was always a chance to counter.
That nearly worked in the 59th minute when Van Persie’s raking ball forward was controlled by Gervinho on the edge of the area with only the keeper to beat. However he stumbled at the crucial moment and Weidenfeller blocked his toe-poke.
The chance was the exception, not the rule. Dortmund were pushing back Arsenal but the visitors were digging in defensively this evening. Koscielny and Mertesacker were clearing the aerial danger and the excellent Song was winning possession on the floor.
The latter’s tackle on Gotze midway through the second half, with the young German in full flow and bearing down on goal, was exquisite.
In one way Arsenal were doing to Dortmund what had been done to them with regularity in the past - defending cleverly and allowing the opposition to play their passing football in front of them but, crucially, allowing nothing to go through them.
The one time the visitors were stretched going forward Piszczek raced onto Gotze’s pass and flashed a ball across the face of goal.
However they were nearly breached nine minutes from the whistle when Gotze’s corner fell to Subotic five yards. His shot thumped in to the grateful arms of Szczesny, a foot either side and it was all-square.
It seemed like Dortmund were spent and Arsenal would hold on. But it is just not going that way for Wenger’s men at the moment. Four minutes from time, Marcel Schmelzer’s free-kick was headed clear by Gibbs and Perisic swung his left foot at it. The ball flew into the top corner past the stranded Szczesny. Incredible.
In the final minute of normal time, the keeper made a crucial save from Lewandowski to preserve a point.
But Arsenal were worth at least that this evening.
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (ITA)
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