Even the imminent departure of Arsene Wenger couldn’t motivate Arsenal to avoid the late defensive slip-up that gives them a mammoth task at the Wanda Metropolitano next week.
The Gunners boss announced that he will be leaving at the end of the season one week before Thursday night’s Europa League semi-final first leg against Atletico Madrid in north London.
Those who expected the surprise announcement would inspire his inconsistent Arsenal side were right, as the Gunners turned in a strong performance for much of the game.
But 82 minutes in, a Laurent Koscielny mix-up and an attempted Shkodran Mustafi interception that turned into a slip gave Antoine Griezmann the perfect opportunity to score.
Griezmann, long term admired by Wenger, was largely anonymous until his smash-and-grab goal – and the French striker would have been delighted to come away from north London with a draw after his side went down to 10 men so early on in the game.
Sime Vrsaljko’s second yellow card after a nasty challenge on Alexandre Lacazette may have been a dubious call, and it also saw Atletico boss Diego Simeone sent to the stands for his subsequent protestations.
Without the Spaniard on the touchline Atleti struggled to contain an inspired Arsenal side who clearly relished playing in a packed Emirates Stadium among an atmosphere which was undoubtedly the club’s best so far this season.
Wenger’s side looked fired up and desperate to prove a point after falling behind in the Premier League this season, and for the majority of the match they appeared to be doing so.
Lacazette’s bullet header after an excellent cross from Jack Wilshere provided the perfect tonic going into the second leg in Madrid, but they now need to win by one clear goal or secure a draw with at least two goals per team if they have ambitions of reaching next month’s final in Lyon.
Could there still be a fairytale ending to Wenger’s 22 years at Arsenal? The Gunners will require a masterclass in Madrid and they can cast their minds back to their 2006 Champions League final run where they beat Real Madrid at the Bernabeu thanks to a Thierry Henry goal.
Over a decade later there can be no doubt that this Arsenal squad is defensively vulnerable in every game no matter the opposition.
Indeed, Wenger admitted in his pre-match press conference that they need at least three new players to challenge for the Premier League next season. Fairytales or not, Wenger’s side are still in the Europa League and can take faith from an inspired 80 minutes in which they played Atletico off the park.
Jan Oblak’s inspired save from Aaron Ramsey in the second half provided a reminder of what Arsenal face in the second leg. Despite going down to 10 men Atletico showed character and got a bit of luck – which is exactly what Wenger’s men will need in next Thursday’s crucial clash.