Club Focus – Arsenal – Shock defeat to Braga leaves Champions League qualification on the brink

Arsenal’s Champions League campaign, much like the month of November, looked promising in patches, but now presents a rather bleaker picture. Following a 100% start to their European campaign, almost unthinkably the Gunners may not progress beyond the group stages.

The Gunners utilised home advantage to record hefty wins against Shakhtar Donetsk and Braga and an impressive performance in Belgrade saw them record three wins out of three. In a complete reversal of fortunes since the mid-way point, two away defeats to their qualification rivals leave the side needing a win in the final round of matches to ensure qualification. The result is not fatal, with their fate still very much in their own hands, but given the lightning start to the campaign second place in the group would be a severe disappointment. Looking at the bigger picture, the Gunners are likely to finish second and face a group winner in the last 16, and with seeding in place to avoid an all-English affair at that stage of the competition some formidable names in European football enter the fray as potential opponents. The side’s lack of ruthlessness in pressing on to secure the elusive 10th point in the group stage after their perfect start has left their qualification teetering on the edge.

In this sense, the campaign is remarkably similar to Saturday’s derby defeat. Arsenal effectively made a perfect start, only to stutter before the finish line as a lack of ruthlessness cost them dear. Braga’s stadium is effaced with rock behind one of the goals, but it may as well have been 20 yards further forward for all the threat the Gunners posed to the opposition goal. The attacking players are likely to bear the brunt of criticism for the side’s inability to kill off games, but the role of the defence cannot be understated. Twice on Tuesday the defensive line was too high and caught out all too easily by a direct ball down the middle. Rewind to Saturday and the same can be said. This defensive generosity is symptomatic of the inability to close out results, with the opposition encouraged that if they bide their time and remain patient, they can snatch a goal to defy the odds.

Tuesday night’s result is more disappointing than devastating, yet the injury to Cesc Fabregas is a bitter blow. Prior to the match, Arsene Wenger alluded to his ongoing hamstring troubles and suggested he may not feature. “Sometimes after the game he has a little recurrence,” he said, “but at the moment I do not want to take a massive gamble… We cannot afford to lose him.” His selection was something of a surprise in that regard, but indicated the manager’s desire to secure victory, and with it, progression. Thankfully the latest hamstring injury is not the same ailment that has blighted his season so far and the prognosis does not appear to be as serious as first contemplated.

As with last season, Aaron Ramsey’s fitness is dovetailing with that of the captain, with the Welshman stepping up his rehabilitation by completing 45 minutes for Arsenal’s reserves. Following a lengthy lay-off, he remains a long way short of match fitness, but his recovery is gathering the kind of momentum the side as a whole would dearly love given recent results.

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