Arsenal blow 2-0 lead in Schalke but earn what could be a precious point
Champions League: Schalke 2 Arsenal 2
Arsenal let a two-goal lead slip in Germany but were eventually relieved to emerge with a point after enduring a testing night at the Veltins Arena.
Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud had given the Gunners a 2-0 lead inside the opening 26 minutes, but Schalke hit back through Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s goal on the stroke of half-time and Jefferson Farfan fired them level on 67 minutes.
The Bundesliga side looked the more likely winners at that stage, but Arsenal held firm and held on to second place in Group B ahead of the improving Olympiakos, who defeated Montpellier 3-1 in Athens.
However, the Greeks head to Schalke next on the same night Arsenal entertain the eliminated Frenchmen at the Emirates, and two home wins will see Arsenal and Schalke through to the last 16.
That is not a bad conclusion to the night for Arsene Wenger’s side who, despite those early goals, were again below-par and could easily have been beaten by a side twice in the group stages for the first time in their 15 years in the competition.
Giroud and Walcott scored but were partly to blame for an ineffective attacking display on a night when the Gunners’ young Italian keeper, Vito Mannone, was probably their best player as he had been at Old Trafford on Saturday.
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Wenger had, as expected, dropped under-fire Brazilian left-back Andre Santos, drafting Laurent Koscielny into the back four and switching skipper Thomas Vermaelen to the left side of defence.
In midfield the only change from the defeat at Old Trafford saw Walcott restored on the right flank in place of the injured Aaron Ramsey.
If that selection suggested plenty of attacking options, the opening quarter of an hour was all Schalke, and Mannone had to be alert to keep out a strike from Ibrahim Afellay, while there were several desperate defensive blocks and headers in a nervy start for the Gunners before Schalke skipper Benedikt Howedes headed over the crossbar from a corner.
But Arsenal weathered that storm, and after 18 minutes took the lead with their first real chance. Per Mertesacker’s hopeful long ball was headed dreadfully back towards his own goal by Roman Neustadter to send the lurking Giroud clear. The Frenchman dithered for too long and was tackled by Howedes, but the ball broke for Walcott and he flicked it over Lars Unnerstall before tapping into the empty net.
That goal stunned the hosts and changed the tone of the game. Where they had been purposeful Schalke were now hesitant and Arsenal’s midfield started to click, the axis of Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere beginning to show signs of creative intent.
Within eight minutes of taking a surprise lead, Arsenal had doubled it. Again a decent opening appeared to have foundered when Wilshere was dispossessed but Giroud and then Lukas Podolski retrieved the loose ball and whipped a cross into the six-yard box where Giroud was completely unmarked and flashed a diving header into the net.
Wenger, restored to the touchline following his three-match ban, looked like he could scarcely believe his luck, but he also knew that with more than an hour to play the game was certainly not over. The way Arsenal played the rest of the half did little to convince him otherwise.
Schalke were getting far too much joy down the flanks with Farfan all over Vermaelen and Afellay looking a constant threat.
Farfan had already blazed one effort wide when he should have scored before the Bundesliga side halved the deficit right on the stroke of half-time.
Cazorla uncharacteristically gave the ball away in Arsenal’s half and a neat touch from Lewis Holtby set up a sight of goal for Huntelaar. The Dutchman drilled his shot into Mannone’s far corner and the game changed in an instant.
Wenger seemed to have words with referee Nicola Rizzoli at half-time, perhaps at the amount of injury time added on by the Italian officials, but injuries to the hosts’ Atsuto Uchida and Giroud had caused considerable delays. Wenger’s anger surely lay with his team for conceding at such a vital time of the game, but in truth the 2-0 lead had flattered the Gunners enormously.
The German side were out early after the break and immediately looked hungry to try and get back on level terms. Giroud, who endured another mixed evening up front, miskicked a volley from another Podolski cross but then Huntelaar should have made it 2-2 only to be denied by an excellent block from Mannone, even though the Dutch striker appeared to be offside.
Arsenal’s attacks were sporadic, while Schalke always looked dangerous. On 54 minutes after more good work by the excellent Holtby, a goalmouth scramble ended with Mertesacker appearing to block with his arm, but Rizzoli waved away the loud home appeals for a penalty.
Arsenal looked stretched. The back four seemed incapable of clearing the ball properly, while Wilshere and Cazorla could not maintain possession. As on Saturday, it was a most un-Arsenal like performance, apart from the haphazard defending that has become all too familiar in recent seasons.
Arteta cleared another effort off the line on the hour mark and the only respite came when Podolski picked up a needless booking, reacting angrily after Rizzoli had decided the prone Schalke substitute Marco Hoger needed attention and stopped a threatening Arsenal attack with his whistle.
Arsenal supporters must have wished Podolski could show as much passion in trying to win possession and create something. Hoger eventually was replaced but it didn’t stop the Germans’ rhythm.
Mannone had already made another good save from a Holtby piledriver when another ball into the Arsenal box caused consternation, Vermaelen was late covering at the far post and Farfan’s shot flew in off the Gunners’ captain for the equaliser.
It had been coming, and it was fully deserved. And an increasingly ragged-looking Arsenal had 25 minutes to survive in a raucous atmosphere. Not many watching fancied their chances.
For some reason the sting appeared to go out of the hosts’ game. Arsenal regrouped and restricted Schalke to mainly long shots and crosses although Mannone had to be constantly alert.
Wenger did not make any changes until the 90th minute, when the much-maligned Santos and Francis Coquelin came on for Cazorla and Podolski, who had both endured a disappointing evening.
Both sides suddenly seemed content to play out time, but Walcott then had a superb chance to win the game in the last moment, but saw his shot blocked by the legs of Unnerstall.
The point could yet prove vital, but with Olympiakos winning against Montpellier, Schalke look more comfortable at the top of the group.
For Arsenal however, despite the fact that they threw away a two-goal lead, this felt like a bit of an escape. It was certainly not the performance Wenger wanted after the low of Old Trafford. There is much improvement that still needs to be made.
Arsenal: Mannone, Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Arteta, Wilshere, Walcott, Cazorla (Coquelin, 90) Podolski (Andre Santos, 90), Giroud.
Subs not used: Shea, Djourou, Arshavin, Jenkinson, Chamakh.
Booked: Cazorla, Podolski
Schalke 04: Unnerstall, Uchida (Hoger, 25 [Papadopoulos, 66]), Howedes, Matip, Fuchs, Jones, Neustadter, Farfan, Holtby, Afellay, Huntelaar.
Subs not used: Hildebrand, Marica, , Moritz, Draxler, Kolasinac.
Booked: Fuchs, Matip, Jones.