Arsenal face fears of continuing Champions League hoodoo

PORTO, Portugal — Mikel Arteta believes his Arsenal side are detached from the club’s historical catalogue of UEFA Champions League round-of-16 exits, but another one beckons if they cannot embrace the occasion better than this.

The Gunners will back themselves to overturn a 1-0 deficit from Wednesday’s first-leg defeat against Porto, but to do so they must rediscover the poise and purpose that made them heavy favourites before kickoff.

Before Galeno‘s sublime 94th-minute winner, Arsenal were unusually inhibited, bereft of the dynamic football that has come to define them: they failed to register a shot on target in a match for the first time since January 2022, against Nottingham Forest in an FA Cup third-round defeat which left Arteta incandescent with rage. He was more considered here, safe in the knowledge they have a chance to rescue the situation in three weeks.

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“Credit to them, they defended well,” Arteta said. “But it’s true, when we got in certain areas we didn’t finish the action or put in the final ball or the right cross. Now it is clear, it is half-time. If you want to be in the quarterfinals you have to beat your opponent and that will be the purpose and the plan, with all our supporters together.”

A raucous Emirates Stadium in the return leg will be a powerful positive in their favour — just as Estádio do Dragão was for Porto tonight — but they have still not won a knockout match in this competition since 2015.

Many of those defeats were characterised by a lack of guile and game intelligence that appeared again here. Only the players can truly answer whether Arsenal’s record of seven consecutive Champions League round-of-16 defeats weighed on their minds — Mohamed Elneny is the only member of that team from their last appearance at this stage, a 10-2 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich in 2017 — but they were a shadow of their usual selves.

Perhaps inexperience told. Arsenal’s starting 11 boasted a combined total of 16 matches in the knockout stages, all of them made by Kai Havertz. Porto defender Pepê had 47 by himself. The home side was adept at breaking up the game. There were 36 fouls given here, a season high in the Champions League with Arsenal punished on 22 occasions. It was a point not lost on Arteta.

“It’s something we knew and that we had to prepare,” he said. “It’s something that the referee has to manage. We cannot do anything about it and we’ll have to handle it and play our game. “[But] even from set pieces as well every time we touched somebody it seemed to be a foul before we even kicked the ball. But we will learn and do better.”

The winning goal was the product of both a stunning moment of individual quality from Galeno and a panicked end in which Arsenal made one too many mistakes. Gabriel Martinelli gifted possession back to Porto by playing a careless pass intercepted by Otavio. Declan Rice then stood off Galeno as he gathered himself and took aim, firing a superb long-range effort past goalkeeper David Raya. It all looked a little naïve.

“Well, it’s only the last ball, so if in 94 minutes they haven’t had any naivety other than that one, I think it’s a bit cruel to judge it,” Arteta said. “But it’s true that it has had a big impact on the result. A lot of other things they did for the first time here were very good. “Obviously, I am very disappointed with the way we gave the game away at the end by not managing that situation well enough.

“You get punished in the Champions League. If you cannot win it, you don’t lose it. We really dominated the game but we lacked purpose, especially in the first half. You need to have much more aggression, you need to break lines, to play forward and generate much more threat on that back line.

“In the second half, there were much better things and we generated a lot of situations, without really creating much from it. We will learn from it.”

Rice had earlier inadvertently set the tone for an uncharacteristically nervy display, committing a silly foul after a careless passage of play to receive a yellow card in the second minute. Arsenal’s only real threat came from set pieces with William Saliba and Leandro Trossard wasting promising openings, one in each half, with Arsenal’s front three of Trossard, Bukayo Saka, and Martinelli amassing just two shots all night between them.

Porto pressed well and Arsenal consistently struggled to find a way through. Porto should have been ahead in the first half when Galeno somehow missed two glorious chances in a matter of seconds, hitting the post with the goal at his mercy before firing the rebound wide. Arsenal have been so fluid in front of goal recently, racking up 11 unanswered goals in two away matches at West Ham and Burnley, but this was a night when they felt a little short of options in attack. Gabriel Jesus has 24 goals from 43 appearances in this competition and he was sorely missed.

Arteta once again chose not to entrust Eddie Nketiah with the responsibility of leading their attack despite Trossard’s subdued showing, making just one change as Jorginho replaced the former Brighton forward and Havertz went up front. There is no cause for panic, but one of the few remaining questions this talented young Arsenal side has to answer is whether it can perform under the biggest pressure. Time is on Arsenal’s side, but they are still struggling to find an answer.

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