By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal’s long unbeaten record at Emirates Stadium in European competitions came to an end on Wednesday night at the hands of Schalke.
The goals came late. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar fired the German side in front 14 minutes from time and Ibrahim Afellay added another just before the final whistle on a deeply disappointing evening.
Arsenal had been beaten by Manchester United on this ground in the 2009 Champions League semi-final, but you had to go back some 45 games for their last defeat to foreign opposition on home soil - Inter Milan’s 3-0 triumph at Highbury coming over nine years ago.
Huntelaar’s strike was crucial. Until then Schalke had been the more incisive side but Arsenal had matched them for effort and endeavour.
The Dutchman seems to have a special affinity to this ground. He scored the first ever goal at Emirates Stadium when he netted for Ajax in Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial back in 2006.
Schalke’s victory lifted them to the top of Group B on seven points, one above Arsenal, at the halfway stage. Then there is a gap to Olympiacos who have three points after beating Montpellier late on in France this eveing.
Despite the disappointment this evening, the margins are still slender and Arsène Wenger’s side have the chance for immediate revenge when they travel to Gelsenkirchen on Matchday Four.
With the Frenchman sitting out the final game of his touchline ban, Steve Bould’s side showed only one alteration from the one beaten at Norwich on Saturday – Francis Coquelin for Olivier Giroud – but there were positional changes.
Gervinho went up front and Aaron Ramsey moved to the right of midfield. The central role was filled by Coquelin.
Schalke had not won in their five previous visits to England but this team looked strong. Their only defeat of the season had come against a mighty Bayern Munich side boasting an unblemished record in the Bundesliga.
But, as Wenger had suggested, the German side would be counter-attackers away from home in the Champions League and, at the start, they sat back.
It meant Arsenal dominated the possession statistics, 82 per cent after 10 minutes, but they did not create anything notable.
Interestingly, the first attacking moment came via a Schalke breakaway. Afellay skipped past Carl Jenkinson and Vito Mannone before tumbling under the keeper’s challenge. The Dutchman was booked for simulation.
It was a hold-your-breath moment for Arsenal but it did not change their territorial dominance. A Lukas Podolski cross flashed through Schalke’s six-yard box, Gervinho went clear momentarily, then Santi Cazorla’s shot was deflected wide.
As we passed the half-hour, the game was breaking free of its early shackles. Per Mertesacker blocked Jefferson Farfan’s drive after Schalke had ingeniously worked themselves forward down the right-hand side.
Arsenal’s German defender was starting to have a busy game and in the next few minutes he would make a number of key clearances.
Schalke were now entirely liberated and would find still more significant space down their right. Three minutes from the whistle, full-back Atsuto Uchida went overlapping down that flank and when he pulled the ball back to Huntelaar at the near post you feared the worst.
Fortunately for Arsenal the Dutchman dragged his shot wide.
In truth, the home side had struggled to break through a stubborn Schalke side in the first 45 minutes. But they found some incisiveness in the opening seconds after the restart.
Cazorla displayed sublime skill before finding Andre Santos on the left. His cross just escaped Podolski before Coquelin collected the rebound and bulldozed into the area.
It was a decent moment for Arsenal but Schalke responded with a better one.
Farfan darted to the right wing and pulled the ball back to Benedikt Howedes on the penalty spot. The captain lifted his shot over the bar – the kind of chance a side travelling in Europe has to take.
Once again, Schalke were causing problems for Arsenal down the right. Once again, Farfan was the main agitator.
Seventeen minutes from time, the Peruvian got into another fine position but tamely passed the ball straight into the hands of Mannone.
Had his delivery been better this evening, Arsenal would have been in trouble.
Not that the home side were being outgunned. They were giving as good as they got – it is just that Schalke got into more dangerous positions more regularly.
And, just after Bould brought on Olivier Giroud for Gervinho, Schalke went ahead.
Arsenal failed to clear their lines and Afellay’s header found Huntelaar in space 12 yards out. He fired low and hard past Mannone.
Bould reacted to the goal by throwing on Serge Gnabry and Andrey Arshavin for the final eight minutes.
However before they could have any impact, Schalke grabbed a second. Again Farfan found space down the right and his low cross was slotted home at the far post by Afellay.
The second goal sucked the life out of Arsenal. Gnabry forced a fine save from Lars Unnerstall in injury time and Cazorla planted the rebound over the bar.
It was that sort of night for Arsenal, though on the strength of this performance Schalke will trouble Europe’s best this season.
Referee: Jonas Eriksson (SWE)
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