Arsenal’s Champions League mental block — you cannot call it a jinx because their plight is almost always self-inflicted — seems bigger and more imposing than ever after Arsene Wenger’s side chose a last-16 tie against Monaco to produce their worst performance of the season in a thoroughly miserable 3-1 home defeat.
Goals from Geoffrey Kondogbi and, even more painfully for Arsenal fans, Dimitar Berbatov, means they now face a perilous situation in the second leg in France on March 17 as they bid to end a frustrating recent record in the competition.
But what summed up the night was that having scored a 90th minute goal through Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to make it 2-1 — a superb curling effort that suddenly provided hope — the same player gave the ball away on the half-way line to allow Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco to score on the break.
Already pundits are calling this Wenger’s most disappointing night in Europe; and the reality is that Arsenal are in serious danger of being knocked out in the last 16 for the fifth year in a row.
They, haven’t reached the quarter-finals since 2009-10 and have managed only one semi-final appearance since finishing runners-up in 2006.
It is a hugely disappointing tale of European under-performance that means Wenger remains one of the highest profile managers in football not to have won a European Cup.
On the evidence of this latest display he faces a real challenge to alter that statistic, because it was undoubtedly a woeful night when nothing went right.
“Nobody expected it but we were confident in our ability and we deserved to win,” Berbatov said afterwards. “It’s a great win for us. Arsenal is a good team but we wanted the win more than them. If they underestimated us then it’s bad for them because you can see we won it.”
That last comment will hurt Arsenal badly, and there was no hiding Wenger’s huge disappointment as the final whistle blew.
“It was a horrible night,” Wenger said. “The task is massive now and the third goal makes it more difficult. We have a goal, of course, and will see what we can do there.”
After losing at this exact stage so many times in a row — against Bayern (twice), Milan and Barcelona — this was Arsenal’s golden chance to break that run; a much more favourable draw against a team that are undoubtedly well below the level of previous conquerors. A team that was also missing five first-team regulars and had an average age of just 24.
What Arsenal fans hadn’t counted on, however, was that their side would produce one of those inexplicable displays lacking in energy and common sense that sometimes inflicts the Gunners just when you don’t expect it.
And this, you have to say, was one of the worst. The warning signs perhaps were that Leonardo Jardim’s team had conceded only one goal in the group stage as they cruised to the knockout stages and clearly felt they could come to the Emirates and secure another clean sheet.
In fact the first half was so cagey that it passed the home side by almost completely as Arsenal’s key men — Mesut Ozil in particular — struggled to make any impact against a Monaco side that looked untroubled.
Arsenal were made to pay for their inexplicable lethargy when Kondogbia, who had never scored a Champions League goal in his career, was given time and space to shoot from 30 yards in the 38th minute — and his shot took a wicked deflection off Per Mertesacker to completely wrong-foot the embarrassed Ospina.
The home team’s tempo was better after the break — Olivier Giroud wasted two excellent chances to equalise quickly — but disaster struck after 53 minutes when Sanchez gave the ball away in the Monaco area and Mertesacker made an awful error of judgement as he left his man to try and win it back. The result was a lighting break by the excellent young Martial, a pass to Berbatov and a calm finish from the former Tottenham man. It really couldn’t get any worse for anyone in red; and what hurt the most was that Arsenal deserved it.
An increase in energy arrived with the introduction of Theo Walcott — moments after Giroud had missed a sitter by spooning it over the bar from seven metres — but Monaco’s defence, and Aymen Abdennour in particular, rarely looked troubled.
Every attack was thwarted, every cross cleared and every attack frustrated in what was a highly impressive display from the French side.
But Arsenal’s own mental block seemed just as impenetrable, as the night — and the tie — slipped away from them when Chamberlain’s goal, which provided sudden hope, was quickly followed by a third Monaco goal on the break.
The worry for Wenger now must be just what effect this miserable performance will have on the rest of the season, starting with Sunday’s game against Everton, because coming to terms with the death of another European dream is going to be very painful indeed.
Subs for Arsenal: Walcott for Giroud 60, Oxlade-Chamberlain for Coquelin 68, Rosicky for Cazorla 81.
Subs for Monaco: Ferreira-Carrasco for Berbatov 75, Kurzawa for Dirar 82, Silva for Martial 84.
Referee: Deniz Aytekin (Germany).