Atletico Madrid pose enormous challenge to Arsene Wenger's hopes of ending Arsenal reign with a European trophy
Arsenal need to score in the Europa League semi-final, second leg against a side who have not conceded in their stadium since January 20.
It served as an unfortunate metaphor for the late-Wenger period at Arsenal.
Arsenal have been undermined by defensive mishaps in recent years and, if the cliche is about shooting yourself in the foot, Arsene Wenger’s side found a novel variant on it. Laurent Koscielny kicked the ball into his own face, Shkodran Mustafi fell over and Antoine Griezmann scored.
That was last week. That eminently avoidable mishap meant Arsenal drew 1-1 with Atletico Madrid’s 10 men and which, in turn, means they have to score in the Wanda Metropolitano on Thursday night if Wenger is to stand any chance of bowing out on a high in the Europa League.
And that poses certain difficulties. Atletico have not conceded on their own turf since January 20. Europe’s best defence have kept 11 consecutive clean sheets since then, going 1,007 minutes without being breached after Portu scored for Girona.
Arsenal needed to be flawless last week and they were not. Atletico are the favourites to reach a fifth European final in nine years. They have become the anti-Arsenal, complete with the intensity, the unpleasantness, the solidity and the ruthlessness Arsenal lack. They have the air of winners.
Now Arsenal visit the city where they produced what Wenger last week nominated as his favourite European performance from his two decades at the helm, when a callow back four of midfielder Mathieu Flamini and Emmanuel Eboue, Kolo Toure and Philippe Senderos prevented Real Madrid’s Galacticos from scoring in Arsenal’s improbable charge to the 2006 Uefa Champions League final.
Yet Arsenal did not score that day themselves; that they need to now highlights the scale of Thursday's task. So, too, the reality that they have become accustomed to dispiriting visits to the European elite in the last decade.
Even results that, in isolation, were superficially impressive, 2-0 wins at Bayern Munich in 2013 and Monaco in 2015, were doomed comebacks. They still went out.
Arguably they have no major scalp in the knockout stages since they beat reigning champions of Europe, AC Milan, in 2008. It came in a period where they became intrepid travellers, the scourge of Serie A, eliminating Juventus in 2006 and thrashing Inter Milan 5-1 in 2003; better, Ashley Cole thought, than England’s 5-1 win in Germany.
It came in a season when Arsenal were perhaps Europe’s outstanding team. The paradox is that Wenger, the definitive European manager in Premier League history, importing ideas and players, bringing style and sophistication, changing the domestic game and raising its standards, has never been rewarded on the bigger stage.
This is his 22nd continental campaign and, the 19th extended into the second half of the season and, probably, the last to conclude without silverware.
Unless, that is, Arsenal can confound expectations in a way they have done in the FA Cup in recent years. Wenger’s record seventh FA Cup came last May in Diego Costa’s valedictory appearance for Chelsea. Now Arsenal get an unwanted reunion with an old enemy.
If part of the tale of the decline of Wenger’s Arsenal is how Chelsea’s intimidating strikers have proved the undoing of a side often accused of softness, it is sadly symbolic that the agent provocateur Costa is back to take his place in the Atletico attack, with Kevin Gameiro likely to drop out.
Senderos’ Arsenal career was in effect ended by Didier Drogba. Players as different as Gabriel Paulista and Per Mertesacker have floundered against Costa, who has a propensity to get Arsenal centre-backs sent off.
Now the increasingly error-prone Mustafi meets a possible nemesis. At the other end, Atletico will be without suspended right-back Sime Vrsaljko, though a defence marshalled expertly by Diego Godin coped without the Croatian for 80 minutes last week.
They needed to excel. Alexandre Lacazette, who almost joined Atletico in 2017 and produced perhaps his best Arsenal display against them last week, bears an added responsibility with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ineligible while Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s goalscoring return at Old Trafford gives him a case to play.
The Armenian came off on Sunday with a minor knee problem but trained on Wednesday, along with David Ospina, who had a rib injury but could be preferred to Petr Cech in goal.
If the decisions rest with Wenger, the spotlight will also be on him. The combustible Diego Simeone serves a touchline ban after his first-leg dismissal.
Yet Thursday night it is Wenger who could be expelled, from European competition for one last time as Arsenal manager. After two decades and more than 200 games, he could reach the end of the road on the continent now.
Updated: May 2, 2018 03:49 PM