Below-par Arsenal slumped to a 2-0 defeat at Porto to leave themselves with a tougher path towards Champions League glory.
With his side already qualified for the last 16 and with several key men – like captain Cesc Fabregas and striker Robin van Persie – carrying injuries, manager Arsene Wenger felt confident enough to take a calculated gamble with his team selection against a well-organised Portuguese outfit, who had never lost here to an English side a European tie.
Arsenal will now be drawn against one of the group winners next Friday – which include Juventus, Bayern Munich and Barcelona – and so must play the second leg away from home.
FC Porto Starting XI
Fucile – Rolando – Bruno Alves – Pedro Emanuel
Lucho Gonzalez – Fernando – Raul Meireles – Lopez
Hulk – Rodriguez
Arsenal Starting XI
Eboue – Djourou – Gallas – Silvestre
Ramsey – Denilson – Song – Diaby
Bendtner – Vela
While the road to the Champions League final in Rome is certainly not blocked for the Gunners, the path has now become somewhat more treacherous after Wenger’s 700th game in charge of Arsenal ended in his 129th defeat (he’s also registered 406 wins and 165 draws since joining the club in September 1996).
Emmanuel Eboue had been jeered off when he was replaced toward the end of last week’s Premier League game against Wigan following some poor touches.
However, the 25-year-old, playing at right-back, was given a warm welcome by the small travelling band of some 1,500 or so Arsenal fans at the Estadio do Dragao, which was far from full.
It was a bright start by the Gunners.
After five minutes, Mexican teenager Carlos Vela drew a foul out on the left. Denilson sent in a deep free-kick, which Diaby headed over.
At the other end, Eboue was penalised for running across Hulk as the striker charged towards the Arsenal penalty area.
The free-kick, some 25 yards out, just to the left of the arc, was taken by Bruno Alves and Almunia had to get down to his right to make a smart save.
With both teams already assured of a place in the last 16, there was something of a low key feel about the match as the quarter-hour marked approached.
The first real chance opened up for the visitors on 25 minutes when Nicklas Bendtner – this week in bright green boots – fed Aaron Ramsey on the right edge of the Porto box.
The young Welshman turned his marker and fired in a low, angled shot, which Helton did well to push around the far post.
Almunia came to Arsenal’s rescue when he blocked Lucho Gonzalez’s close-range effort and William Gallas hacked the loose ball clear.
Space opened up again in front of the Arsenal box on 33 minutes, this time Raul Meireles drilled a 20-yard strike just wide.
It was no surprise when the home side took the lead six minutes before the break.
A corner from the left was floated into the Arsenal box, and Bruno Alves arrived in front of Abou Diaby at the far post to head past Almunia.
Goal: Bruno Alves (39)
Arsenal, who only needed a point to secure top spot, stepped up a gear as they tried to get back on level terms before half-time.
However, their delivery into the danger area was poor as the Porto defence stood firm.
The visitors were soon further behind in the 54th minute.
Arsenal gave possession away in midfield, with Fernando picking up the ball and feeding it through to Lisandro at the edge of the box.
The striker made no mistake, smashing his shot into the top right corner.
Goal: Lisandro Lopez (54)
Arsenal again looked to make an immediate response, with Ramsey’s neat turn and shot testing Helton.
Wenger made a double change on 59 minutes, when youngster Kieran Gibbs replaced Diaby and 16-year-old Jack Wilshere for Ramsey.
It would have been all over for the Gunners had Cristian Rodriguez not pulled his angled shot wide when played in on the overlap down the left.
As it was, there remained hope of a comeback and slowly Arsenal mounted some pressure.
However, Rodriguez almost got clear of Eboue as they raced towards the Arsenal goal, but the defender did enough to pressurise the striker into a shot off target.
Lucho dragged his close-range shot wide as the Gunners were exposed at the back once more.
Arsenal were awarded a free-kick just outside the box, but Bendtner’s low shot beat the wall, the Porto keeper collected it comfortably – which just about summed up a lacklustre display from the Gunners.
Gooner Talk’s Man of the Match – Denilson: The Brazilian showed an improve performance from recent games and hit back at his critics with an accomplished 90 minutes.
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