Arsene Wenger’s 250th, and maybe last ever, Uefa competition game, ended in disappointment last night as Arsenal lost 0-1 at Atletico Madrid to exit the Europa League 2-1 on aggregate at the semi-final stage.
Although Arsenal were always up against it after conceding a late away goal to Atletico’s 10 men in last week’s first leg, they had some bright moments during the opening stages at the Wanda Metropolitano.
But when Diego Simeone’s side stepped up the intensity there was really only one winner — and Diego Costa’s superbly taken strike just before half-time put Diego Simeone’s side in control. Arsenal were never outclassed, but never really seemed likely to equalise, and there will be no last showpiece game for Wenger’s exit this summer.
Costa was not quite his full menacing self due to recent hamstring trouble, but within eight minutes the ex-Chelsea centre-forward had brushed aside defenders Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal to get onto a ball down the channel and lash a shot high and wide.
Koscielny did not recover, leaving the pitch on a stretcher with a suspected serious achilles tendon injury.
Despite this early blow, Arsenal then produced some excellent football, pushing Atletico’s midfield around, with Aaron Ramsey particularly influential. It led to a precise total of zero shots on goal however — with both Alexandre Lacazette and Mesut Ozil turning down chances to shoot in one particularly frustrating, if characteristically blunt, Gunners’ attack.
Simeone’s side do not tend to take an extra touch if it is not needed — and they began to turn the screw coming to half-time.
Koke, Antoine Griezmann and Costa again all narrowly missed the target, before in a piercing counter Griezmann put the ball behind a sleeping Hector Bellerin. Costa took a touch and lashed the ball straight through goalkeeper David Ospina.
It was the Brazil-born Spain international’s first goal since February, but fourth against Arsenal over his career, and a reminder of the type of killer instinct Wenger’s side have been missing for a long time now.
It was difficult to imagine Atletico being opened up quite so easily, or the Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn back line the Frenchman inherited at Highbury back in 1996.
Arsenal again played some nice stuff after the break, and on 62 minutes Granit Xhaka with a 20-yard rasper forced Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak’s first save of the night. Oblak was never troubled again — and by full time had not conceded at home for over 1,000 minutes in any competition.
Such a record means 1-0 is not a lead to worry Atletico, and Griezmann started pulling out some party tricks, controlling a ball dropping from the sky on his toe, and directing a chest pass to a teammate.
Like Costa he seemed to grow into the big occasion. Only a desperate last-gasp block by Calum Chambers denied the France international a deserved goal.
Wenger cut a dignified figure down on the sideline, his long limbs occasionally twisted in frustration, as so often in recent years.
Arsenal’s last win in Spain came across town at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, when Thierry Henry scored the only goal as Real Madrid were outclassed on the way to the 2006 Champions League final.
This season had offered the 68-year-old a chance to end his reign by finally getting a European trophy for the club, but once they got Atletico in the draw that was never realistically on.
That is despite Arsenal remaining much richer than Atletico, with revenues and wage bills double those of the La Liga outfit
. The culture of the two clubs, as evident in their two teams’ performances over the two legs, diverges a lot more in the other direction.
Atletico tracksuit and runners-clad assistant coach Mono Burgos, standing in for the suspended Simeone, was more vocal than Wenger and tried to get the crowd involved.
The shiny new Wanda is not as intimidating as Atletico’s old crumbling Calderon home, even with Simeone saying pre-game he wanted it to ‘explode’.
Despite their recent lull, Arsenal are still seen as European royalty in Spain.
This was the new stadium’s first real big historic result to remember, after disappointments earlier in the season against Chelsea, Barcelona and Real Madrid, and the stadium was rocking as Atletico held out against Arsenal’s late desperate attacks.
Costa and company now go forward to the final in Lyon on May 16.
Where Wenger goes from here nobody yet knows.
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