Griezmann's sucker punch brings Wenger’s worst nightmare to life

Atlético Madrid grab draw at the Emirates despite playing 80 minutes with 10 men

Atlético Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann scores their late equaliser in the Europa League semi-final first leg against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Atlético Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann scores their late equaliser in the Europa League semi-final first leg against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

 

Arsenal 1 Atlético Madrid 1

Arsène Wenger was mindful of the pitfalls, the potential for anti-climax, as he put it, in his final home European tie as Arsenal manager. He wants what would be a first European trophy more than anything right now. Would this Europa League semi-final, first-leg prove too demanding, particularly against opposition as streetwise as Atlético Madrid?

Happily for him, his players played with verve and personality from the first whistle, pouring everything into the challenge and there were times, especially in the first half of the opening period, when they subjected Atlético to a gruelling examination.

The team that sits second in La Liga and has established a stellar reputation on the European scene under Diego Simeone were reduced to 10 men after only 10 minutes, following Sime Vrsaljko’s two yellow cards. They were rattled and Simeone was sent to the stands after overheating at the referee, Clément Turpin, in the 13th minute. Arsenal could not find a goal during that period of ascendency but they broke through on 61 minutes through Alexandre Lacazette. A stirring occasion had lift-off. And yet what Wenger feared most deeply would come to pass. Arsenal failed to put the 10 men to the sword and they would be undermined by a darkly familiar defensive error.

Laurent Koscielny had the position on Antoine Griezmann following a high punt forward but he erred badly and, suddenly, the Atlético striker was in. His first shot was saved and Shkodran Mustafi looked to have taken up a good covering position. But Mustafi slipped, Griezmann scored on the rebound and it was advantage Atlético.

Vrsaljko’s dismissal shaped the tie, setting a combustible tone, and the Croatia right back was certainly guilty of a rare form of recklessness, even if both of his cautions were defined by the strictest application of the law.

Arsenal striker Alexandre Lacazette heads home his side’s goal in the Europa League semi-final first leg against Atlético Madrid at the Emirates Stadium. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Reuters
Arsenal striker Alexandre Lacazette heads home his side’s goal in the Europa League semi-final first leg against Atlético Madrid at the Emirates Stadium. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Reuters

The first one was for a lunge on Jack Wilshere, after Vrsaljko had been played into trouble by José Giménez and, with that in mind, he ought to have thought twice about stretching into a tackle on Lacazette in a non-threatening area. He did not.

Vrsaljko was late and he trod on the top of Lacazette’s foot. He gave Turpin a decision to make and the referee duly made it. The notion of a final warning so early in such a big game did not appear to enter Turpin’s thoughts.

Simeone was incandescent and, moments later, after Hector Bellerín had hacked at Lucas Hernández, the Atlético manager took his protests too far in demanding censure for the Arsenal right back. His hackles had also been raised by Mesut Özil appearing to go to ground too easily in a separate incident. Simeone had demanded a yellow card for Özil. Banished to the stands, he paced about the back of the directors’ box – his face a mask of thunder.

The atmosphere had crackled at the outset and Arsenal tore into Atlético. How the scoreline remained level at the interval was a mystery. Arsenal created a fistful of chances by the midway point of the first half and they were clear ones, too.

Lacazette had two of them before the sending off. The first was a volley from Danny Welbeck’s cross, which he chopped down and watched it spin up and graze the outside of the post; the second was a header from Nacho Monreal’s centre from which he extended Jan Oblak.

Arsenal poured bodies forward against the 10 men. Welbeck bustled into the area to tee up Aaron Ramsey, whose shot was blocked by Diego Godín; Wilshere headed tamely at Oblak; Welbeck, having exchanged passes with Wilshere, shot at the goalkeeper from an tightish angle and Laurent Koscielny, in yards of space after Lacazette flicked on Granit Xhaka’s corner, stretched and sliced wide.

At the time, it seemed imperative that Arsenal capitalised on their purple patch, but they did not. Apart from a miscued Monreal volley on 31 minutes, they rather ran out of steam before the interval. Lacazette was also guilty of making too much of a penalty area contact that he initiated in the 23rd minute.

Atlético might have hurt Arsenal in the final part of the first half. Twice, Griezmann drew saves out of David Ospina, the second after a powerful run by Thomas Partey.

This Simeone team has proved a difficult nut to crack for many years and they had to rely on all their know-how with 10 men. Partey, the central midfielder, was moved to right back; Koke came inside from wide midfield and Griezmann switched to the flank. They worked tirelessly to compress the space between the lines. It became a test of Arsenal’s temperament, as much as anything else.

Wenger’s team continued to press onto the front foot in the second half, they continued to probe but the gaps they had enjoyed in the frantic opening no longer looked so pronounced. Wenger stalked his technical area or rocked forward on the bench. The strain was clear.

The breakthrough goal lanced the tension. Griezmann was guilty of trying to play out from the back and, when Monreal tackled him, the home crowd sensed opportunity. Wilshere stood up a cross to the far post and Lacazette, having timed a towering leap, summoned power and direction in his downward header to beat Oblak. – Guardian service

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