Arsenal finally got the draw they wanted, but a calamitous 3-1 defeat at home to Monaco leaves them teetering on the brink of elimination from the Champions League Round of 16 for the fifth successive season. Arsene Wenger had attempted to insist that there were no favorites, but there was no disguising that Arsenal had been handed a matchup with the least intimidating of the group winners in the form of a Monaco side fourth in Ligue Un.
Arsenal certainly played like they believed they were superior. After a fast start, complacency crept in and allowed Geoffrey Kondogbia’s deflected strike to give a well-disciplined Monaco side a half-time advantage. And despite still having more than 30 minutes to atone, Arsenal’s familiar panic and naïve over-committing going forward allowed former Tottenham and Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov to inflict a stunning second blow. In injury time Monaco’s perfect night looked to have been ruined and Arsenal given real hope for the second leg when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain finished impressively. But Arsenal’s woeful display was summed up when they allowed substitute Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco to race through and score a goal that leaves Wenger’s side facing a titanic task in the principality.
History certainly offers few crumbs of comfort for Arsenal. Only six times in the history of the European Cup have a side come back to progress after losing the first leg at home, only one, Ajax all the way back in 1969, have done so after losing by more than one goal.
Credit should not be taken away from Monaco. Despite missing arguably five members of their first-choice lineup, Leonardo Jardim’s side demonstrated the defensive resilience and organization that saw them concede just one goal in the group phase and only three in their last 17 matches in all competitions coming into this contest. A side largely devoid of star quality after their mammoth spending was rapidly curtailed last summer worked together as a supremely drilled team, complemented by the individual quality of Berbatov and the superb Joao Moutinho.
But make no mistake this was a disastrous night for Arsenal. While Wenger could point to rough draws against Barcelona, AC Milan and twice Bayern Munich for their failures to win a single knockout tie in recent seasons, there can be no excuse this time around. Arsenal had generally been in fine form ahead of the resumption of the Champions League, even showing they could sit back and defend solidly against Manchester City. But this a performance more in keeping with their defeat to Tottenham earlier this month.
It was a display where all of Arsenal’s faults came out to play. In contrast with what was to come, their start was highly impressive, setting a high tempo that had Monaco’s unfamiliar lineup and particularly left-back Elderson Echiéjilé rattled. But after the hosts failed to capitalize, Monaco dug in and the intensity of Arsenal’s play dropped off dramatically. There were already signs that danger lay in store before, 38 minutes in, Kondogbia took advantage of Arsenal’s failure to close down by unleashing a powerful strike that deflected off Per Mertesacker and leave David Ospina rooted to the spot.
By that point Olivier Giroud had already missed a clear chance and more were to follow early in the second half. Arsenal had begun the period like they had been given their wakeup call during the interval, but Giroud’s three misses in the space of 12 minutes proved incredibly costly. In the midst of that spell of profligacy, Arsenal left themselves horribly exposed on the break. Mertesacker committed himself disastrously upfield, leaving Laurent Koscielny all alone against two men. Anthony Martial slid in Berbatov and the veteran front man coolly beat Ospina as a trio of Arsenal players desperately tried to catch up.
Showing some inexplicable sloppiness at the back, the scoreline could have been made worse. But a late exchange of goals from two substitutes still leaves Arsenal with it all to do to avoid a defeat that would once again call the club’s whole direction under Wenger into question.