By Rob Kelly at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal have a mountain to climb if they want to progress in the Champions League after losing the first leg of their last-16 tie against Monaco.
Arsene Wenger’s side struggled to find their best form in a cagey first half as they came up against robust, well-organised French opponents who denied them any clear sight of goal.
The visitors grabbed a shock lead in the 38th minute when Geoffrey Kondogbia’s long-range shot deflected off Per Mertesacker and past David Ospina.
It was a hammer blow for the hosts, and things got even worse after the interval as Monaco doubled their advantage when they broke at speed and scored through Dimitar Berbatov.
Olivier Giroud blasted an opportunity over the bar as the Gunners sought a foothold in the tie, but they were indebted to Ospina soon afterwards when he made a smart block to deny Anthony Martial.
Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck both came close as the hosts pushed on, and finally they had their reward in injury time when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain curled a superb shot into the top corner.
It felt like a goal that could have changed the tie, but there was another late twist as Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco counter-attacked at speed and scored right at the death for the visitors.
It leaves Wenger’s side with a huge battle ahead of them in the return leg on March 17.
SETTING THE SCENE
For all his efforts to downplay the significance of the match to him on a personal level, Wenger had conceded it would be a “strange” experience to face Monaco.
The Frenchman spent his formative managerial years in the principality and his links with them had dominated the pre-match narrative.
But for Wenger, all that counts is what happens on the pitch, and to that end he made two changes to his side in an effort to take control of the first leg.
Both gave an immediate injection of pace to an already rapid side, with Hector Bellerin replacing Calum Chambers and Kieran Gibbs in for Nacho Monreal.
Elsewhere Giroud spearheaded the attack for his first taste of Champions League football this season, while Welbeck was preferred to Walcott on the right flank.
The visitors’ plans, meanwhile, were thrown into turmoil when the dangerous Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco and Layvin Kurzawa failed late fitness tests and were named on the bench. With the experienced Ricardo Carvalho and Jeremy Toulalan also absent, it was a significant headache for the principality.
The Gunners started with the bit between their teeth, with Welbeck firing just over the bar with little over a minute on the clock.
That was all the encouragement they needed, and they continued on the front foot in the early exchanges, forcing the visitors back into their own half and passing around them in search of an opening.
Monaco boasted the best defensive record in the competition in the group stage after only conceding once in six games, and that solidity soon started to manifest itself as they grew in confidence.
They may have been missing some key men, but with Martial and Nabil Dirar providing pace and potency on the flanks their attacking threat also started to emerge as we reached the midway point of a cagey first half.
Arsenal needed a spark to bring the game to life, and they nearly found it just after the half-hour mark as Ozil found Alexis in the box and the Chilean chipped inches over the bar.
But on the whole, they found it tough going against an obdurate, well-organised Monaco side who gave them precious little encouragement as they sought the breakthrough.
Seven minutes before the break, things took a turn for the worse as Kondogbia let fly from 30 yards with his shot deflecting off Mertesacker and arrowing past Ospina to give the visitors the lead.
It was a cruel blow for the Gunners who, while not at their best, did not deserve to find themselves behind at the interval. They were up against it now.
Whatever was said at the break seemed to have an immediate effect as the hosts sprang out the blocks, with Giroud slicing wide at the near post after good work from Alexis.
Arsenal needed to grab hold of proceedings and raise the tempo if they were to find a way back into the game, and they were certainly much improved in the early knockings of the second half.
Giroud headed another chance wide from an inswinging Santi Cazorla free kick as they continued to up the pressure - but suddenly the game took another twist as Monaco countered at speed and scored through Berbatov.
It knocked the stuffing out of Wenger’s side - and the frustration inside Emirates Stadium grew further when Giroud blasted high over the bar with the goal gaping soon afterwards.
It could have got even worse on the hour mark when Ospina was forced to race off his line to make an important block to deny Martial, who had been found in space in the area.
Still Arsenal continued to push on, with substitute Walcott forcing Danijel Subasic into a fine save before the England forward inadvertently blocked Welbeck’s rebound.
Finally the goal they so craved arrived in injury time as Oxlade-Chamberlain kept his composure on the edge of the area and curled a delightful shot into the top corner.
But moments later Ferreira-Carrasco broke through the middle and slotted beyond Ospina to put Arsenal in real trouble ahead of the second leg in the south of France.
Referee: Deniz Aytekin (GER)
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