Arsenal still drawn to their bad defence

Wed, Nov 7, 2012, 00:00

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: Arsenal 2 Schalke 04 2:Arsene Wenger had insisted that Arsenal’s situation was “not dramatic” yet this is a team who seem to trade exclusively in the commodity. There was the familiar cocktail of hope and anxiety here, together with headline-grabbers, including Theo Walcott’s goalscoring return to the starting lineup for a big game. Olivier Giroud’s header was another highlight.

Arsenal started poorly only to take charge when Schalke lapsed for a period in the middle of the first half. Yet Wenger’s team surrendered the initiative when they conceded in first-half injury-time to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, which reshaped the tie again.

They could be relieved that Schalke’s second-half plunder extended no further than Jefferson Farfan’s equaliser. They came under severe pressure and that the goalkeeper Vito Mannone was their outstanding performer told its own story. And yet, with the last act, Walcott streaked clear and, with only the goalkeeper Lars Unnerstall to beat, he saw his shot blocked. His goal took his season’s tally to eight from four starts in all competitions. There would not be a stunning ninth.

Arsenal had arrived on the back of the dispiriting defeat at Manchester United and a couple of other bad results. This was their latest rocky ride but the conclusion was positive. It will irk the travelling support that what should have been an unassailable lead was frittering away but Schalke did not deserve to lose. Wenger would surely have signed up for the draw beforehand and, indeed, at any point after Farfan’s goal until Walcott’s last-gasp chance. Arsenal remain favourites to emerge from Group B.

There was a priceless quality about Walcott’s early strike. Roman Neustadter erred with a loose back-header that put Giroud clean through. He was dispossessed but Walcott had followed up and, after forcing a break past Unnerstall, he rolled into the empty net.

The goal had come against the run of play, with Arsenal’s tweaked back-line, that featured Thomas Vermaelen at left-back in place of the hapless Andre Santos, coming under early pressure and enduring nervous moments.

Schalke’s speed on the break had been a feature of their 2-0 win in London and they gave warnings here when first Huntelaar found Christian Fuchs and he saw his shot deflected wide by Mikel Arteta and, shortly afterwards, Ibrahim Afellay burst forward to draw a smart save from Mannone at his near post.

Wenger was not happy on the touchline. It was in no way part of his gameplan to be caught by a sucker punch away from home. The Schalke captain Benedikt Howedes also flashed a header over the crossbar from a corner.

Walcott’s goal had a fortifying effect; Arsenal felt the confidence flow through them and their second goal was a beauty, showcasing Giroud’s strengths. He linked with Lukas Podolski, after taking a pass from Jack Wilshere and broke for the near post. Podolski sculpted the cross and Giroud, all alone, thudded home with a stooping head. It felt like an old-fashioned goal. Arsenal had not previously scored with a header this season.

Arsenal looked in charge; Schalke, the clinical counterattackers, were asked to force the issue and the crowd at this cavernous arena had begun to grumble. Yet Wenger’s team allowed the hosts a lifeline.

Farfan had gone close with a rising drive and Giroud headed straight at Unnerstall when Lewis Holtby’s header froze the Arsenal defence. Huntelaar’s finish was low and true. Vermaelen has never made any secret of his lack of fondness for the left-back role and his positioning was suspect here. There was a fretfulness about Arsenal at the back.

Schalke dominated the second half and ought to have equalised when Arsenal’s defence was caught square and Huntelaar tip-toed through one on one. It was a heart-stopping duel; Mannone blocked to come out on top. Schalke battled back from the brink. The home supporters found their voice, particularly when claiming a penalty for handball against Per Mertesacker.

The pattern felt entrenched; Schalke pushing and Arsenal attempting to cling on. Mannone beat away Holtby’s attempt from distance. The equaliser had been trailed and it arrived when poor marking at the far post allowed Holtby to flick on and Farfan’s drive flew in, despite Vermaelen’s efforts.

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