For so long, for more than a decade maybe, the three most over-used words in reports about Arsene Wenger’s team in the Champions League have been ‘Same Old Arsenal’ — and just when it looked like they could shake off that perception they fell agonisingly short once more against PSG.
Wenger’s side have reached the knockout stages of the tournament 14 years in a row, a level of consistency which most of their rivals would kill for; but their European history has been more accurately defined by the fact they have been knocked out in the last 16 for the last six years — and five times after finishing second in their group.
Year after year, the same mistakes, the same outcome — sloppy performances in the early stages and stage fright when it really matters.
This was the match, having already secured qualification with two games to go, when they could have changed that perception, but they couldn’t quite do it.
The result means Arsenal need to better PSG’s result in their final game in Basle to finish top of Group A, an almost impossible task when you consider the French champions play at home to Bulgarian side Ludogorets in Paris.
There will be disappointment at the Emirates, then. But there were also signs of a change in attitude and application that at least provides a glimmer of hope.
Having just produced gritty comeback against Manchester United in domestic competition at the weekend — a very un-Arsenal performance in which they failed to have a shot on target until Olivier Giroud’s late header — this was another gutsy display against the French champions even if it didn’t quite get Arsenal where they wanted.
Miserable for long periods in the first half in which PSG dominated possession and the Gunners wobbled at the back, they recovered from Edison Cavani’s opening goal to force their way ahead in the s econd half, only to succumb to an equaliser, just when they were on the front foot.
Same old Arsenal?
Well, almost. There was a resilience to the side in the first half and a vibrancy in the second, against a very good PSG team, that suggests they cannot be totally written off — even if Cavani had a flurry of opportunities to put them to the sword as the visitors played on the break in the final 15 minutes.
But you have to say the end result, which all but confirms a draw against a group winner in the last 16, leaves expectation of a extended run in the competition pretty low — and that’s certainly a familiar feeling.
Giroud rather typified Arsenal’s hit-and-miss performance on a night when he too had a big opportunity ahead of him.
The Frenchman, a hero for his country at Euro 2016, has spent most of this season on the bench since returning to England, leading to speculation he could leave north London in January in search of more regular football.
But having scored a last-minute equaliser at United last weekend he was finally given an opportunity by Wenger to start alongside Sanchez, the man who has kept him out of the team until now.
Whether he took that opportunity depends on your point of view given that he had so few touches in a first half in which Arsenal were pretty poor.
His penalty on the stroke of half-time, calmly and expertly taken, certainly changed the match but on the other hand Arsenal struggled to create meaningful opportunities even when on the front foot.
Interestingly, Wenger gave Giroud a glimmer of hope in his matchday programme notes, heavily hinting he is being considered for a longer spell in the side.
“I consider him a regular player,” said Wenger.
“He had a long holiday after the European Championships, after that he was injured. Now he’s coming back.
“It’s true that in the last two games he’s been a bit frustrated but that’s normal because he’s ready to go again. The solution of Alexis up front has worked well but I have two options because Alexis can play on the flank as well. So I can sometimes marry the two together.”
The jury is out on whether the Sanchez-Giroud combination worked — maybe the reality is that the sight of a marauding Cavani gave home fans a glimpse of what a world quality number nine really looks like — and it is also deliberating on whether we will see the same old Arsenal for what remains of this Champions League campaign.
Arsenal supporters will no doubt fear the verdict won’t take long to deliver.
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