By Rob Kelly at Maksimir Stadium
Ten-man Arsenal lost the opening game of their Champions League campaign on a difficult night in Zagreb on Wednesday.
Up against a buoyant home side that had gone close to a year without defeat, the Gunners made a confident start, with Olivier Giroud forcing Dinamo keeper Eduardo into a fine save.
The France international went close again soon afterwards, but the game soon turned on its head when the unfortunate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain deflected a the ball into his own goal.
The challenge facing Arsene Wenger’s side deepened when, five minutes before the break, Giroud was sent off for a second bookable offence.
Maksimir Stadium was jumping at half time, and the volume increased further when, just before the hour mark, Junior Fernandes extended Dinamo’s lead.
But with 12 minutes remaining, Theo Walcott gave the Gunners a lifeline when he raced through on goal and slotted the ball into the far corner.
Despite waves of red pressure during the closing stages, Arsenal could not find another way through and left the Croatian capital empty-handed.
SETTING THE SCENE
Having seen both English sides lose in Europe the previous night, the size of Arsenal’s task was clear - especially against opponents who had not been beaten in 11 months.
Dinamo Zagreb are Croatia’s very own ‘Invincibles’, having sealed the last season’s title without defeat. They would provide a searching examination of the Gunners’ credentials.
Wenger - perhaps with one eye on Saturday’s clash with Chelsea - sprang a surprise by resting Petr Cech, with David Ospina replacing him in goal.
Elsewhere, Mathieu Debuchy and Kieran Gibbs came in for Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal, while Mikel Arteta captained the side.
Oxlade-Chamberlain and Giroud were also restored to the starting XI as the Gunners sought a fast start to their Champions League campaign.
The visitors set off on the front foot, intent on silencing a raucous home crowd - and they so nearly did so in the ninth minute, only to see Giroud’s firm header palmed around the post by Eduardo.
Wenger’s side continued to press and probe and while Dinamo remained a threat on the break - especially through the dangerous Marko Pjaca - Arsenal appeared more likely to break the deadlock.
Giroud went close again when he met Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross, only to see his deflected header hit the post before Eduardo pushed his follow-up effort away.
It was somewhat against the run of play then, when Dinamo took the lead.
It came about as Josip Pivaric was played in on goal with a cute through ball from El Arabi Hilal Soudani. Ospina did well to race out and block the left-back’s initial effort, but the ball cannoned into Oxlade-Chamberlain’s knee and flew back into the net.
It was a blow for the visitors and things went from bad to worse when, five minutes before the interval, Giroud was given his marching orders for a second bookable offence after catching Ivo Pinto.
It seemed harsh on the France international, but the decision gave Wenger a significant problem to ponder at the interval.
Dinamo came perilously close to doubling their advantage seconds after the restart when Soudani hit the post from five yards out.
It was a real let-off for the Gunners, but despite their numerical disadvantage they continued to push on in search of a way back into the game.
However, Dinamo were able to exploit the space left at the back and moments after Debuchy had made a last-ditch block to deny Fernandes, the winger headed in from the resulting corner.
Arsenal were up against it and, with Maksimir Stadium in full voice, how the home fans knew it.
But, with 78 minutes on the clock, the visiting supporters finally had something to cheer when Alexis played Walcott in with a fine through ball and the England international kept his cool to reduce the arrears.
Walcott had scored a hat-trick for his national team the last time he was in this stadium, and his club side were in need of further heroics as a tense finale ensued.
But despite Arsenal’s best efforts, there was no further twist in the tale as they slipped to a disappointing defeat in the Croatian capital.
Referee: Ovidiu Hategan
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