Football Features

Toothless Arsenal suffer “sickening” defeat as Champions League last 16 woes continue

By Harry Edwards

Published: 22:22, 21 February 2024

Arsenal’s love-hate relationship with the Champions League last 16 continued as they were beaten 1-0 by Porto in the first leg.

A lot has been made about Arsenal qualifying for the last 16 of the Champions League this season. It was the first time the Gunners would be playing knockout football in the Champions League since the 2016/17 season, ending a seven-year wait.

More importantly for Arsenal, they hadn’t made the quarter-finals of the Champions League since 2009/10. After knocking out Porto at this stage in 2010, Arsenal fell at the last 16 in seven consecutive seasons. Three of those exits came at the hands of Bayern Munich, two to Barcelona, and one each against AC Milan and Monaco.

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But the problem is a bit deeper than that. And it’s a problem that continues in 2024.

What hampers Arsenal is the fact that they give themselves work to do in the second legs of their last 16 ties. The Gunners have now lost the first leg of their last 16 ties in each of the past seven seasons they have reached this stage.

The run started in 2011/12, when Arsenal were beaten 4-0 by AC Milan. It was a year of comebacks in the Champions League, but Arsenal could only win the second leg 3-0 and they bowed out. A year later, Bayern Munich won the first leg and although Arsenal took the second, it was the German side who advanced on away goals.

Bayern Munich beat Arsenal again in the first leg in 2013/14, while Arsenal could only draw the second, sending the Gunners out. There was another away goal exit in 2014/15, this time to Monaco, who won the first leg. Then, in 2015/16 and 2016/17, Arsenal were knocked out by Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively — though on those occasions they did lose home and away.

In fact, in their failures to make it past the last 16, only once did they win the first leg — beating Barcelona, before falling 4-3 on aggregate, in a matchup that will be remembered for a controversial red card to Robin van Persie that turned the tie on its head.

This defeat was different. Arsenal will have been happy with a draw, keeping them in control, but the nature of the game reflects poorly. Despite their possession, Arsenal were outshot by Porto 8-7 and failed to hit the target once. It was the first time they hadn’t had a shot on target in a Champions League games since facing Barcelona on 8th March 2011, the aforementioned defeat when Van Persie was sent off. Although it finished 3-1 to Barcelona, Arsenal’s strike was an own goal from Sergio Busquets.

Just as Arsenal looked to be taking the draw, Galeno struck. It was a wonderful strike from outside the area worthy of winning any game, and was just about the only real moment of quality in front of goal from either side. Galeno had missed a sitter in the first half, so this was his redemption, with just the second shot on target of the match. There were more yellow cards than shots on target!

“Well, they [Porto] stuck to their gameplan. Arsenal had 65% possession, neither team were really creating that many opportunities,” Martin Keown told TNT Sports about what went wrong for Arsenal.

“It got a little bit loose at the end. I just think that it’s inexperience. Martinelli there could have kept possession, you see the game out. Jorginho came on to do that very thing, so that will be quite sickening for that young team to concede in the way they did.”

He added: “It was a harsh lesson tonight, for Arteta and his team. He talked about attacking better, show more aggression, and they’re quick learners.

“Arteta and his team are young in this competition, as manager and players. And I think they’ll learn quickly and they’ll do much better in the return leg. There’s no doubt about that.”

A moment of optimism for Arsenal fans. They lost the first leg against Porto away from home in the last 16 in 2009/10, before thumping the Portuguese side at the Emirates.