Don't blame Fabianski for Wenger's pride

BY Jamie Trecker • February 17, 2010

Tonight, conspiracy theorists are salivating.

Is there any other rational explanation for Lukasz Fabianski’s performance tonight, wherein he effectively tossed two goals into his own net?

Sorry, but this isn’t the Kennedy assassination.

Tonight, a naïve, understrength and undercoached Arsenal side committed basic — and unforgivable — errors, and threw away a chance to return from Portugal with something in hand.

Gunner fans will point to the many injuries, the lack of confidence and the continuing failures of Arsenal’s management to field a full-strength side. They will be correct, and yet utterly miss the point.

Instead, this is likely to serve as the moment when the Arsene Wenger era ended, the night when all the excuses and the rhetoric finally stood revealed as little more than bluster, and at the hands of an eminently beatable Porto side, no less.

Arsenal has been trying to convince its fans and its players — to say nothing of the club’s directors — that it can succeed at the highest level of football playing a game that relies exclusively on young, swift talent, paying scant attention to experience or grit. That pretty chatter now sounds quite hollow, for the truth is that without experience and reinforcement, any team is fundamentally incomplete.

It is damning that the best player on the field for Arsenal tonight was creaky Sol Campbell, whose heroics nearly rescued a side that he had been forced to abandon three years ago. It is telling that one of the least effective was Cesc Fabregas, whose head and heart seem to have been turned by the steady static emanating from the Camp Nou.

And it is black comedy that Arsenal’s continuing weakness in the nets was once more cruelly exposed, tonight at the hands of a young Pole who was so obviously rattled that he shouldn’t even have been out there in the first place.

Fabianski will be destroyed tonight across Europe, first for palming a harmless cross from Silvestre Valera into his own net, and then following that up in the second half by inexplicably collecting a backpass — an error he compounded by failing to follow fundamental protocols on a free-kick attempt, such as, you know, stalling for time by standing on the ball.

His career at the top level is unlikely to recover from the shellacking he will face, and the truth is that while he deserves all that malice, it is Wenger who should pay the price.

For too long, Arsenal have believed they can conceal financial weaknesses in the face of overwhelming evidence. Their books are shaky for a team with their pretensions - some in England have reported that they exist on illusion as much as Portsmouth or Manchester United despite their power.

And if true, while Wenger has to be given credit for fielding a side of such quality, it has become so obvious that he is unwilling to make the needed investments on defense, one has to wonder if his ego is in play as much as the coffers.

There truly are few excuses for this performance. Even the most die-hard Portuguese fans — if there are any left outside Lisbon — have to concede that this Porto side is weak. Falcao, Fucile and Hulk all perform gamely for the Portuguese side, but they are three men adrift on a team that has to survive using tactical and consistent fouling.

Tonight they were abetted by the same referee, Martin Hansson, who allowed Thierry Henry and the French to rob the Irish of a possible World Cup slot. They are not of a class that can take the European Cup.

But Porto took its chances, and took them well. They fully deserve this win. And tonight, Arsenal also deserve a withering look. They clearly are not the side they are billed to be. And the blame for that has to stop at the feet of Wenger and Ivan Gazidis.

Germany tonight saw a match that defied the traditional stereotypes. There was very little of the dour, calculating defensive Serie A in Fiorentina's game, while Bayern could rarely employ the possess, then cut-and-thrust style which Bundesliga teams often favor.

This was a night when the Florentines were willing to trade punches in an end-to-end match, running with their opponents rather than trying to disrupt or clutter the midfield with numbers.

Bayern may not be 1970's vintage these days but there remains a hint of the cutting, diagonal-through pass and the supporting runs from deep about their game. The options wide on both sides of the pitch with Franck Ribery and Arejne Robben willingness to accept good, probing passes balanced by Mario Gomez' willingness to drop and then run into space.

And yet, while Bayern were often able to turn a Fiorentina counter into their own attack, it was the Italians in control much of the half.

In fact, while entered short of some key personnel but they went into this match with an attacking mind-set. That did not mean the Italians ranged, but by keeping Alberto Gilardino up high as a counter-attack threat, they stifled a lot of Bayern’s invention.

When Mark van Bommel's two-footed tackle got his name into the book in the 28th minute, it was a clear sign that Bayern had been unable to impose its will on the match — these visitors were finding unexpected space in the German defense with a willingness to keep the pace high through midfield.

No one had stepped forward in center field to run the show for the home team and there was a lack of the good final ball to support when either Bastian Schweinsteiger or Van Bommel tried to create with long passes out of defense.

It was not until the 43rd minute that Firoentina keeper Sebastien Frey had to be in action and even then Robben's drive from mid-range was not troubling. But Robben had been the one Bayern player to constantly ask questions so while it was against the run of play it was not entirely surprising that the Dutchman's tenacity in the final stage of the half led to the opening goal.

Referee Tom Ovrebo actually disallowed an apparent Gomez goal because Ribery had been brought down before Robben slammed home the resulting penalty in stoppage time. Bayern had a lead they probably did not deserve and Fiorentina were left to assess why they got so little reward from a very good opening half.

Fiorentina continued to get forward with Jovetic and Vargas keeping the Italians' game on the front foot. They got the equalizer - and a valuable away goal - in five minutes when a Fiorentina corner was played forward to Per Kroldrup, alone, to sweep the ball past Butt. It was only fair reward for the visitors and Kroldrup, who had been the man to concede the spot kick.

Robben was the one Bayern man who consistently found space to bedevil an otherwise confident Fiorentina backline, especially when he could combine with Ribery. In a bid to increase the attacking options, Louis Van Gaal finally allowed Ivica Olic and Miroslav Klose to make their appearance with 25 minutes left. Gomez and Muller, the latter almost invisible, went off.

But the turning point might have been the ejection of Massino Gobbi. That decision, apparently supported by Ovrebo's assistant, was contentious, as replay clearly showed a wayward elbow turning an otherwise ordinary challenge into a harsh burden for the visitors. Prandelli immediately took the hard-working Jovetic off and sent on Felipe to reinforce the defence for a 10-man holding action.

Klose was more than a bit fortunate not to see red himself when he went in high and hard on Felipe in the 77th minute as the physical challenges increased. Ovrebo could have sent Klose marching and not been wrong, but he chose yellow to the consternation of the Italians.

Then, the Italians were caught at the death, Klose heading in the winner from what looked like a blatantly offside position. The linesman appeared well-positioned to rule differently, but the flag stayed down.

As a result, the Viola are headed back to Florence with a defeat they didn't really deserve. One can only imagine the verbal sparring that will precede a second leg that Florentines may feel carries just a faint scent of revenge.

Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for covering the Champions League and European football.

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