Dinamo Zagreb 2 Arsenal 1
Zagreb was hit by an earthquake on Tuesday night that, for about five seconds, shook the buildings in the city. For Arsenal, the tremors arrived 24 hours later.
Arsène Wenger had banged on about the importance of starting his 18th consecutive Champions League group phase campaign strongly. The manager was obviously mindful Bayern Munich lie in wait and the margin for error against the smaller fry was minimal. “You are quickly out of the Champions League,” Wenger had warned.
There has long been the sense, though, that Arsenal can find a way to craft a surprise defeat out of nowhere and here was the latest evidence. Dinamo had not won a group stage tie in 15 previous attempts, going back to 1999. They have never advanced to the Champions League knock-out rounds.Few gave them a big chance here.
But they recorded a famous victory, which was defined by Olivier Giroud’s sending-off for Arsenal in the 40th minute and the visitors’ failure to fashion a late twist. They applied the pressure after the substitute Theo Walcott’s goal, as Wenger went for broke, but Dinamo got the job done.
Arsenal had felt the weight of English expectation, after the Manchester clubs’ defeats on Tuesday night and yet there was the sense Saturday’s Premier League visit to Chelsea loomed large in Wenger’s thoughts. Certainly, the club’s heavy programme over the next two and a half weeks compelled the manager to rotate his personnel.
He made six changes from last Saturday's 2-0 home win over Stoke City, with David Ospina, Kieran Gibbs and Mikel Arteta, the club captain, in for their first starts of the season. For Arteta it was his first action since November when he came off with a calf problem against Borussia Dortmund.
It was not expected to rule him out long-term but he would need surgery on his ankle in January and he missed the rest of last season. This kind of pattern with injured players has since been repeated with Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere.
Arsenal sought, as usual, to work their first-time football. They were on the front foot at the outset and Mathieu Debuchy established he could play Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in behind Josip Pivaric, the Dinamo left back. The boot was on the other foot, though, when Pivaric exposed Arsenal's defensive cover on the flank to help the home team take the lead.
Arsenal were caught cold when El Arabi Hilal Soudani slid a wonderful pass in behind Debuchy for the on-rushing Pivaric and, confronted by Ospina at close quarters, he pulled the trigger. The goalkeeper blocked but the ball ricocheted off Oxlade-Chamberlain, who had chased back, and flew inside Ospina's near corner.
This was not how Arsenal had seen things going. Dinamo had done little in the early exchanges apart from pepper long-range shots off target, but after the breakthrough they grew in stature. The home side asked questions of Arteta in midfield and they made in-roads on Debuchy’s side. There was rust among some of Arsenal’s changes.
The visitors were undermined further by Giroud's dismissal and it was, on so many levels, utterly needless. The striker, who came into the line-up for Theo Walcott, had twice gone close to scoring the opening goal. First, he rose to meet Santi Cazorla's ninth-minute corner to work Eduardo, the Dinamo goalkeeper, and then he scrambled an effort against the post after Debuchy's ball forward and Oxlade-Chamberlain's cross. Eduardo denied him on the rebound.
Giroud’s frustration was mounting and he complained to the referee, Ovidiu Hategan, after some perceived rough stuff from his markers. It was all a little petty and, in the 24th minute after Giroud had climbed over Domagoj Antolic to concede a free-kick, he blew up at Hategan. The striker was booked for the histrionics.
Giroud did not clip his wings and when Dinamo botched a free-kick routine and the ball broke for Ivo Pinto, the Arsenal player felt the need to hang out a leg in what was a clumsy challenge. Pinto went down under the contact and Giroud was in trouble. It was hardly a nasty foul – in fact, it was a little soft, but Giroud had given Hategan a decision to make and he duly ran in to make it. Giroud stared in disbelief at the red card.
Wenger responded in the second half by moving Alexis Sánchez up front, and using Mesut Özil as an auxiliary striker off the right. Gibbs was pressed high up the field on the left. It felt like death or glory for Arsenal and Dinamo saw that they could have chances on the counter if they kept their composure.
They went close to the second goal immediately after the interval, when a corner was flicked on and Soudani, who was unmarked, headed against the far post. Arsenal's organisation had broken down; it was a portent of what was to come. From another corner in the 58th minute, taken by Paulo Machado, Junior Fernandes attacked the ball with gusto. There were red shirts around him but Fernandes had timed his leap to perfection. His header flashed past Ospina.
Wenger made a triple substitution on 64 minutes, introducing Walcott, Joel Campbell and Francis Coquelin, and switching to what was, essentially, a 3-4-2 formation. Campbell worked off the right; Özil the left and there was Sanchez and Walcott through the middle.
Arsenal finished strongly, against the odds, and they deserved their goal as much for their spirit of adventure. On the ground where he scored a hat-trick for England against Croatia in 2008, Walcott finished smartly, after Sánchez’s fine through-ball. The closing stages were nervy sparked wild celebrations.