Arsene Wenger talked about the determination to make amends for last season’s Champions League exit as Arsenal kicked off their latest quest to win the European Cup for the first time in their history. Instead, Wednesday’s opening group stage clash against Dinamo Zagreb saw the Premier League side pick up exactly where they left off against Monaco. On a desperately disappointing night in the Croatian capital, Olivier Giroud was sent off as Arsenal went down 2-1 to what was on paper the weakest team in Group F.
Dinamo Zagreb came into the contest unbeaten in 41 matches and were certainly no pushovers. Yet in European competition their achievements have been far less impressive. They have never made it out of a group stage in either the Champions League or Europa League. Indeed before Wednesday they had just a solitary win in the Champions League proper, and that came back in 1999.
It was two years prior to that that Wenger took the reins at Arsenal, and the Champions League remains the only major title to have eluded him. While this week he reiterated his intent to end the club’s wait to become champions of Europe, this was an ignominious way to start.
As expected Arsenal had plenty of possession, but it was the home side that made their limited attacking forays count. Dinamo took the lead midway through the opening half when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain switched off and allowed Josip Pivaric to run in behind him. While David Ospina, starting in place of Petr Cech, made the initial save, the ball deflected back into the net off Oxlade-Chamberlain. Five minutes before the interval, matters took a further turn for the worse for Wenger’s men. Giroud, having been booked earlier for dissent, thoughtlessly hooked his leg around Ivo Pinto to bring the Dinamo man to the turf and earn a second yellow card.
Perhaps Arsenal’s greatest failing, though, was yet to come. A man down and still with over 30 minutes to get a goal back, Arsenal, and Laurent Koscielny in particular, were caught upfield to allow Dinamo a four-on-two break. While a desperate block from Mathieu Debuchy prevented a goal immediately arising, some poor defending from the resulting corner allowed Junior Fernandes to head in and give the Croatian champions a commanding advantage. While Theo Walcott came off the bench to give Arsenal hope with 11 minutes remaining, their hold proved too great to dig their way out of.
It is the second consecutive season in which Arsenal have fallen to defeat in their opening Champions League contest. And while they will still fancy their chances to come out of a group that also contains Olympiakos and Bayern Munich, their hopes of going though as group winners have already taken a severe blow. Given that for the past five seasons they have progressed as runners-up and been eliminated in the first knockout stage, a defeat to Dinamo could yet have serious consequences.
And Wenger’s team selection will certainly be scrutinized. As well as Cech starting on the bench, Aaron Ramsey and Hector Bellerin were left in London. Following Wenger’s decision not to sign a striker in the summer, Giroud will also come back under the microscope.
The France forward was heavily involved in the first half, including having a free header from 10 yards in the ninth minute but failing to beat Dinamo goalkeeper Eduardo. He came even closer minutes later, this time his deflected header came off the post before Eduardo denied him from the rebound.
It appeared a matter of time before Arsenal would make their possession count, but in the 24th minute they were behind. A neat move from the Croatian champions and a fine pass from Soudani cut the visitors open before Oxlade-Chamberlain appeared to get the final touch.
All was not lost for Arsenal, but Giroud’s senseless sending off and an over commitment going forward proved costly. Indeed, the night could have been even worse for Wenger, with Ospina lucky to escape when charging out of his box and catching Ante Coric with a late challenge.
The pressure will now be on Arsenal when they host Olympiakos in two weeks’ time. But before that comes a heavyweight Premier League duel at Chelsea on Saturday.