England’s bad week in Europe got worse this Wednesday as ten-man Arsenal crashed and burned in Croatia, falling 2-1 to Dinamo Zagreb thanks to an own goal from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and a header from Junior Fernandes.
"We were a bit unlucky tonight," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said after the loss. "I believe the first goal is offside and after the sending-off is very harsh. We were not at our best, but nor was the referee tonight."
The result was one of the bigger upsets in recent Champions League history: Dinamo has never made it out of the Champions League group stage, and, prior to tonight, had never won against a Premier League team. But three out of the four English teams in the Champions League have now lost in the first round, with only Chelsea managing to eke out a win; and that over Maccabi Tel Aviv, a side not considered a world soccer power.
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This was an embarrassing showing for both a prideful country and a Premier League that claims to be the world’s best. On the evidence, England’s clubs have a long way to go to keep up on the European stage.
But back to Arsenal, who were dreadful and deservedly lost. They made several critical mistakes in the game, the first coming before a ball was even kicked. Arsene Wenger, gambling ahead of a critical Premier League showdown early Saturday against bitter rivals Chelsea, fielded a weakened team that included David Ospina taking keeper Petr Cech’s place.
This was a mistake against a Dinamo team that while troubled, hadn’t lost in 41 straight matches across all play. Dinamo’s troubles are off-field; the CEO and manager of the club, Zdravko and Zoran Mamic, were jailed after accusations of bribery, tax evasion and theft of club funds, related in part to the club’s $28 million transfer of Luka Modric to Tottenham in 2008.
At the outset, Dinamo looked wary and largely hung back to let Arsenal pass. That nearly proved costly after only eight minutes when Eduardo was called upon to swat away a header from Giroud at the near post. Ten minutes later, Mathieu Debuchy sprung Oxlade-Chamberlain with a long ball that was sent beautifully over to Giroud, only to see him head this one off the post. Giroud could not stuff home the rebound as Eduardo covered the gap.
But slowly, Dinamo took the advantage. As the home side realized Arsenal was uncomfortable being pressed, they got right up against them, with Marco Pjaca a constant threat and El Arabi Soudani giving Gabriel all he wanted. And Arsenal’s defense was simply absent: without Francis Coquelin in as a shield and with the experienced Per Mertesacker out hurt, they were frequently overloaded on the counter.
The first goal came due to a press, with Paulo Machado spinning a ball from center to Soudani, who then released defender Josip Pivaric in full stride down the near side. His low shot was stopped by Ospina — but critically, not held — and the ball ricocheted back off Oxlade-Chamberlain and into the net. Arsenal protested that Pivaric had been offside in the buildup to the play — and they had a point — but the goal stood and Arsenal were sunk.
Giroud always looked a man on the edge tonight, visibly upset after every miss or errant pass, and collected his first booking twenty minutes in for flapping his mouth. He clambered all over Domagoj Antolic and then complained after the foul was given. It was incredibly stupid. But Giroud clearly did not learn his lesson, and he hooked Ivo Pinto in the 40th minute to be sent right to the showers. It was perhaps a harsh card, but it was a foul and Giroud had to go.
Dinamo’s pressure continued with Soudani crashing a header off the post in the 47th minute with Ospina flailing. Amazingly, as happened with Giroud in the first half, Soudani could not turn his own rebound in, instead pushing it wide with the keeper helpless.
However, Dinamo would shortly grab their second. Springing a four-on-two break against an Arsenal defense that seems to be unable to communicate, they got lucky when a great ball from Soudani to Fernandes resulted in a last-ditch tackle from Debuchy. But seconds later, playing the zonal marking system that has failed them so often, Arsenal coughed up a cheap goal to Fernandes to seal Dinamo’s win.
Fernandes danced around Laurent Koscielny to get on the end of Machad’s corner and while Ospina looked clumsy, it was hard to blame the keeper for that goal: his back line simply didn’t protect him at all.
Arsenal made a triple change shortly after, chucking on Coquelin, Walcott and Joel Campbell in a desperate attempt to shore things up. Walcott came good in the 78th when he put Eduardo on the floor on a breakaway started by Alexis Sanchez, to tuck the ball home to the far corner.
The Gunners now have many questions to answer, and in short order. They are last in Group F; will face Chelsea Saturday; and then arch-rivals Tottenham the following Wednesday in the League Cup. Dinamo, on the other hand, will celebrate, and good on them. They were the better team on Wednesday night by miles.
"We have for a part to look at ourselves also, because the second goal kills our game," Wenger said, "On the corner we were guilty not to defend it well. When you don’t win the game you have to look at yourself and think you haven’t got it right. I don’t believe the players who came in had a bad game but it didn’t work, it didn’t work. I have to analyse that well. It is very difficult to give a definite answer straight after the game."