Club Focus – Arsenal – A fumble and a grumble as Arsenal stumble

Arsenal couldn’t record the result that their play deserved as their moments of incisive passing play were completely overshadowed by two freak goals that gifted Porto a 2-1 victory. Other than this they put in a terrific away performance, directly attacking Porto’s seemingly vulnerable back line, but for Arsenal fans this is yet another ‘nearly.’

Manuel Almunia missed the game with a twisted finger, likely sustained in making his fine save from Liverpool’s Ryan Babel on their way to a crucial victory last Wednesday. A week on and the Spaniard may well see a positive side to his enforced absence as the media glare and criticism of the Arsenal goalkeeper this time befell his deputy. Lukasz Fabianski was to suffer a torrid night as soon as Silvestre Varela’s sliced low cross was fumbled into the net to give Porto the lead. The fact that he had largely redeemed himself with a string of fine saves by the time the second was conceded will be quickly forgotten. The goalkeeper found himself in a defensive mix-up with Sol Campbell and between them contrived to concede first a free kick inside the box, and then a goal to gift Porto their second and consequently the winner.

Arsenal grumbles arose over the manner in which they conceded the winning goal. The referee demanded the ball from the goalkeeper and subsequently allowed the indirect kick to be taken immediately without informing Campbell or Fabianski. The referee was then at fault for blocking Campbell from attempting to either stop or intercept the pass – to detrimental effect as Falcao had the simple task of converting from close range. Had there only been one of these aspects present, then the goal should be accredited to quick thinking and intelligent play and Arsenal’s sense of injustice would be misplaced. However, the bizarre combination of all three gives Wenger grounds for complaint, and complain he did: “It is better than a penalty. It was unbelievable that he allowed Porto to play straightaway and push the ball into the net. I have never seen that and I have been in the game a long time.”

Parallels will inevitably be drawn to Thierry Henry’s quickly taken free kick in a 2-2 draw against Chelsea in 2004. Then hailed by those in red as genius, however, it is the differences that are key. Then, Henry asked the referee if he could take it quickly and waited for permission to do so before shooting and in fact Eidur Gudjohnsen tried in vain to warn his goalkeeper before the kick was taken. In Wednesday’s game the referee had his back to the play and subsequently signalled for the indirect free kick after it had already been taken. There is a strong argument for the advantage to go to the attacking side, but in an era where the authorities encourage fair play, Fabianski has paid the ultimate price for his honesty.

This can easily be viewed as a lack of experience and the question of whether Jens Lehmann would have handed over the ball so readily has been raised in some areas. Although prone to the odd high profile error himself, the German would have held a full-scale inquisition there and then rather than afford the chance of such a cheap advantage. Yet for all of the media focus, of the goalkeeper’s errors the first was the poorest, showing not only a lack of awareness and anticipation, but poor basic handling skills in allowing the ball to squirm from his grasp and cross the line. The errors sandwiched an otherwise solid performance for the Pole, but served to neatly highlight the dilemma facing Arsene Wenger. With the commonly-held view that Almunia’s days are numbered, this was a real chance for Fabianski to stake a claim to be Arsenal’s number one. Now, the young goalkeeper’s confidence is surely shattered. Wenger was tempted to play him against Chelsea but opted against this, citing the younster’s bad memories of a rash decision made in last year’s FA Cup semi-final agaisnt the Blues. This mental fragility and goalkeeping naivety is a worrying trait. In terms of reflexes and reaction saves, the youngster is top class, however it is his decision making that appears to let him down.

Whislt Fabianski is at fault for the bizarre winner, the role of not only the referee, but Sol Campbell must not be underestimated. Arguably Campbell was just as culpable, touching the ball when the keeper had commited to pick it up and then demonstrating his frustration rather than moving into position. As such a lack of experience cannot be the sole explanation for what turned out to be ‘one of those nights’ for Arsenal. Campbell’s strike marked consecutive Champions League goals for the defender – albeit three and a half years apart – and gave Arsenal a valuable away goal. Now they must turn their attention back to the Premier League with three tough fixtures before their chance to avenge the defeat when Porto visit in early March.

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