Arsenal beaten - perhaps selling Eduardo wasn’t such a good idea, Mr Wenger?
Champions League Group H: Shakhtar Donetsk 2 Arsenal 1
Complacency was the word Arsene Wenger used to describe why his side had lost their perfect Champions League record in Donetsk, a defeat that denied the Gunners a chance of sealing early qualification to the knockout stage.
Having taken an early 1-0 lead through Theo Walcott’s sumptuous finish, Arsenal inexplicably took their foot off the accelerator and found themselves 2-1 behind by half-time after a pair of defensive howlers allowed the hosts to take control.
The Gunners could not raise themselves to find an equaliser in an attritional second half, and suddenly their comfortable-looking progress from Group H has been thrown into doubt.
Arsenal will head to Portugal to meet Braga in three weeks’ time knowing that another defeat could leave them in some peril, although a final group game at home to whipping boys Partizan Belgrade is a comforting insurance policy against an unthinkable early exit from Europe’s elite competition.
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“We had a good start but after we lost our urgency and let Donetsk come into the game too much,” admitted a frustrated Wenger afterwards. “We lost concentration in the duels and you could see what was coming towards half-time.
“It was more of a team problem, a kind of complacency problem more than an individual problem. In the second half we came back into the game and gave a lot so you can’t fault the team.
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“We were a bit unlucky. We have learnt the lesson that at this level you can’t lose focus at any moment and that is why we were punished.”
The defeat brought a run of five successive victories in all competitions to an abrupt end, and the fact the winner was scored by former Gunner Eduardo only rubbed salt into the wound.
His consolation goal in the 5-1 rout at the Emirates a fortnight earlier had been roundly cheered by the Arsenal fans, but this time another clinical left-footed finish on the stroke of half-time settled the game in the favour of his new club, the reigning Ukrainian champions.
In truth it was not an undeserved victory, Wenger had left some key players back in London and the side he sent out never really convinced it had the mettle to pull off a result in a stadium where Shakhtar have never lost since moving to over two years ago. The 2009 Uefa Cup winners have also not been beaten in Ukraine in 29 European games. It is not an easy place to go, as Arsenal found out to their cost.
Cesc Fabregas (hamstring), Alex Song (ankle), Denilson (groin) and Andrey Arshavin (virus) were all excused the long trip, and Arsenal’s midfield was bereft without them.
Craig Eastmond and Jack Wilshere returned to form a teenaged central midfield partnership, while Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott were also handed starts with Samir Nasri in the attacking trio behind lone striker Nicklas Bendtner who replaced Marouane Chamakh.
Walcott continued his rich scoring form this season with the opening goal after just 10 minutes, picking up Wilshere’s flicked pass and outpacing the Shakhtar defence to race clear before sliding a shot beyond home keeper Andriy Pyatov.
It was quite a goal and his seventh in just eight appearances this season, with four of those having been from the substitutes’ bench.
But it was to be the sole bright moment of the evening for Arsenal fans, as Shakhtar hit the post and forced a fine save from Lukasz Fabianski before equalising in the 25th minute in an unfortunate moment for 19-year-old midfielder Eastmond.
Emmanuel Eboue had conceded a free-kick out on the right, and when Jadson swung it in to the near post, Dimitro Chygrynskiy’s glancing header diverted from the head of Eastmond past Fabianski.
The Donbass Arena erupted with noise and you immediately sensed the nature of the game had changed. Arsenal were now in a battle for survival.
It was a storm they looked to have weathered successfully until a dreadful piece of defending from Gael Clichy in the final minute of the first-half.
Clichy allowed Shakhtar captain Dario Srna to beat him all too easily on the Gunners’ left, and from his low cross Eduardo converted with the kind of instant finish Arsenal fans knew well from his time in a red and white shirt.
There will be more than a few supporters wondering if selling the Croatia international in the summer for �6.5million was really such a good piece of business after all.
How Arsenal could have used his poacher’s instinct in a second half that saw Shakhtar sit deep and decide to hold on to what they had. Despite bringing on three more strikers in the shape of Chamakh, Carlos Vela and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, an equaliser never looked likely.
The Mexican Vela looked especially sluggish and, given that it was his presence at the Emirates that probably forced the injury-plagued Eduardo out in the summer, his lack of progress is a worry for Wenger.
Wilshere perhaps had the best chance, the ball breaking to him just inside the box on 53 minutes, but the 18-year-old steered his left-footed shot the wrong side of the post.
French centre-back Sebastien Squillaci also had a good chance from Clichy’s cross, but his header was too close to Pyatov, who saved well.
“We are still in a strong position,” said Wenger, who has had plenty of praise for his former striker Eduardo - so horribly injured his time at Arsenal - over the last few weeks, but not on this occasion.
“I don’t take much pleasure from seeing him score in this particular game, but it’s good to see him playing at that level and overall he had a very good game.”
The same could not be said of Arsenal. The old familiar failings of defensive fragility and a lack of incisiveness up front had come back to haunt them on the road in Europe, and they still have some work to do to reach the last 16 of the Champions League for the 11th successive season.