Porto 2 (Fabianski og 11, Falcao 52) Arsenal 1 (Campbell 18)
(Champions League Round of 16, First Leg)
You will be hard pushed to find a game in which a team gives away a pair of goals as soft as those we handed Porto tonight. At Champions League level, they are the sort of gifts that condemn you to a swift exit, but thanks to an otherwise controlled display and a Porto side lacking in star quality, the tie remains firmly in the balance.
That is a blessing on so many levels – even putting aside the obvious fact that we desperately want to progress in this competition, it would be painful beyond belief to lose to this particular opposition, who spent the vast majority of the game diving, card-waving, complaining, and cynically chopping our captain down. More on that later.
As expected, Wenger opted for a formation that alternated between 4-3-3 and 4-5-1 depending on who had possession, with Nasri and Rosicky entrusted with the roles of creators and destroyers when required. Porto came flying out of the blocks, and could have struck early, Campbell making up for being beaten for pace with a superb recovery tackle, before Hulk screwed a great chance wide.
Having weathered the early storm, we appeared to be getting on top, but then self-destructed in a way that made our recent concessions seem tame by comparison. Varela made Clichy look foolish on the wing, before whipping in a cross that was far too close to Fabianski, who should have fallen on it with ease. Instead, he inexplicably palmed it into the back of the net, and Porto were given a lift they barely deserved.
In fairness, we responded well. Bendtner’s shot looked goalbound before being deflected behind, but from the resultant corner, Campbell unsettled the keeper, Rosicky came round the back, headed it back into the middle, and the big man marked his return to Champions League football by powering it home. Those who took up my earlier bet of the day for Campbell to score at 12/1, enjoy your winnings.
Sol Campbell – the big man is back
The goal seemed to deflate Porto completely, and apart from one long range effort that Fabianski dealt with well, all the chances were falling to us. Rosicky and Bendtner were denied by Helton, a keeper who looked distinctly dodgy during a 4-0 defeat at the Emirates in September 2008. It seemed only a matter of time until we got our noses in front.
Porto, meanwhile, had stopped bothering to play football, and instead chose to take turns to blatantly take Cesc out after he played a succession of passes. On numerous occasions, the referee acknowledged the incident and chose not to card the offender, a fact made more incredible when you realise that our captain was fouled ten times in the match, most of them cynical and late.
When they weren’t fouling, they were diving. In fairness to the otherwise poor official, he never fell for their tricks, consistently telling them to get up, but why he never reached into his pocket to book anyone is a mystery. On the stroke of half time, his complete lack of control of the match allowed a ruck to break out, after Cesc was taken out maliciously by Micael. Again, no card was forthcoming.
In a way, half time was the worst thing that could have happened – before the break Porto had lost the plot entirely, and we were in complete control. After their manager got stuck into them, they came out with renewed fire. Still, we should have had a penalty when Rosicky was clearly taken out, a foul so obvious that either the referee or assistant (who was looking directly at it) could have spotted it a mile off. Remarkably, it wasn’t given, and can just add to the tally of spot kicks we haven’t been awarded this campaign. I forget what having one is like.
The gaffe was compounded by the fact that Porto scored their winner from the resultant counter attack. But frankly, we have no-one to blame by ourselves for what transpired. Campbell attempted to shepherd the ball back to Fabianski, but clumsily nudged the ball. Goodplaya correctly pointed out on Twitter that it wasn’t deliberate, so should not have been deemed a backpass, but the instinct of most keepers is to kick if unsure, so for Fabianski to take the risk of picking it up was foolish.
What followed was embarrassing. The referee asked Fabianski to release the ball, so he did, but then the Pole turned his back on play, trudging back towards his goal. Sol still had his head in his hands, while Vermaelen, the closest player to the eventual goalscorer Falcao, seemed oblivious to the danger. The only two players showing any urgency were the Porto pair – Meireles touched it to Falcao, who tapped it in.
Some have complained about the referee’s conduct in the move – he demanded the ball back, gave it to Porto and then appeared to block Campbell’s attempts to defend. But in reality, he was correct in the first two actions (it has been said many times that the advantage of a quick free kick is a genuine option to the attacking team), and while he certainly stopped Sol, the defender was never going to be quick enough to prevent the goal. He was already a step behind play, and lacks the pace to recover. So yes, it was abysmal positioning from the referee, but ultimately I don’t think we can blame the goal on him. We had plenty of ways to stop it occurring ourselves.
Most of the criticism is levelled at Fabianski, but Vermaelen does not escape lightly for ambling around the edge of the box, not alert to the possibility of the kick being taken quickly, or Falcao sprinting past him.
We had chances to equalise, notably whenever Diaby’s quick feet afforded him space, but lacked the craft of the first half, while Porto defended much more stoutly. Their tactic of hacking and diving continued unabated, perhaps unsurprisingly given the lack of punishment, and I was reminded of the equally unpleasant Porto side that lifted the UEFA Cup in 2003, a cynical group of players who spent most of the game on the turf, waving cards, complaining and exaggerating every slight touch.
Rarely have I disliked opposition so fervently by the end of the match, so I take great delight in the fact that despite two of the most ridiculous goals I’ve seen, we are still right in this tie. I don’t believe this Porto team is any stronger than the one we dispatched in the aforementioned 4-0 thumping last season, and I see no reason why we can’t destroy them at home.
Providing, of course, we don’t gift them another pair of cheap goals.