No team does heroic failure in the Champions League quite like Arsenal, although even after all the despair and hope and ultimate despair of a quite brilliant cup tie tonight, they cannot get away from the reality that their peculiar brand of thwarted glory is wearing a little thin.
As a performance it was up there with the second leg victories over Bayern Munich and Milan in recent years, as Arsenal kept this tie absorbing right into the last of the five minutes of time added which the Monaco bench protested so furiously. It was classic Arsenal, last roll of the dice, one more attack, heart-breaking close Arsenal, but when it was all over they were left with a Champions League round of 16 elimination for the fifth consecutive season.
The two goals they scored at the Stade Louis II, from Olivier Giroud and substitute Aaron Ramsey, were the first two Monaco had conceded at home in the Champions League. It was a performance of attacking intensity and high-energy but it also demonstrated what an average team Arsenal have been beaten by. No team had chucked away a European Cup 3-1 first leg away tie lead since 1969 but a jittery Monaco came damn close.
Perhaps it was for that reason that when the final whistle blew, Arsene Wenger set his eyes on the tunnel in the far corner and marched straight off the pitch that once meant so much to him without so much as a glance back over his shoulder. His team had fallen short again.
At the start it had been a good first half’s work from Arsenal that built to a nice pitch of intensity around Giroud’s goal with nine minutes of regulation time left until the break, a fair return on their 61 per cent possession and control of the game in the first 45 minutes.
Monaco found themselves caught in a trap familiar to teams who carry an advantage into the second leg – they were unsure whether they should commit to attack in the times they had the ball, and then dropped off for the long periods that they did not have it. If anything, Arsenal might have had more than the one goal at the break and when half-time arrived they had built a nice rhythm.
Wenger’s team pressed Monaco high up the pitch, trusting that Dimitar Berbatov would not be capable of using the space left in behind their back four and although it took the away side some time to find their feet they began moving the ball forward quickly.
Wenger had selected Danny Welbeck on the left side, later switching with Alexis Sanchez on the opposite wing. That meant Santi Cazorla remained in the deep midfield partnership with Francis Coquelin, leaving Ramsey on the bench. Nacho Monreal was preferred ahead of Kieran Gibbs and on the other side Hector Bellerin excelled at right-back.
It was Bellerin who made the first chance for Giroud with a cross from the right that the striker headed over. Laurent Koscielny hit the bar with a header and was erroneously judged to be offside. Sanchez had a bouncing volley stopped. As the pressure grew it was evident that Monaco were powerless to stop themselves dropping ever deeper.
The first goal was not out of the typical Arsenal playbook of beautiful finishes but it went in eventually. From Monreal’s run and scuffed cross the ball went from Mesut Ozil to Cazorla to Welbeck and onto Giroud. His first shot was saved by Danijel Subasic, but when the ball came back at him he reacted well, getting his head to it, spinning and finishing with a shot high into the net.
Arsenal should have scored another within a minute when Giroud again foraged forward and the ball came out to Welbeck on the edge of the area. The Tunisian defender Aymen Abdennour was already on the deck from a challenge with Giroud when he twisted round and got a leg to the ball to send it trickling past the post. Sanchez picked up a late booking for a dive, which enraged him.
As they departed at half-time, Ozil pulled his shirt off and handed it to a grateful Geoffrey Kondogbia which was not really in keeping with the high-stakes, winner-takes-all mood of the evening but nonetheless might just have been overlooked if the German could come up with the goods.
He might have done early on with a nicely-judged free-kick that Subasic tipped brilliantly over. Had that nestled under the bar then the momentum built-up in the first half would have felt unstoppable but it began to ebb. Monaco, to their credit, shut the ball down better in midfield and while Arsenal had much more of it they struggled to test the home defence.
There was another sight of goal for Ozil after the hour but he snatched at the volley and it went wide. Meanwhile, Leonardo Jardim had once again introduced the pace on the counter-attack of Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, the 21-year-old Belgian who caused such problems at the Emirates in the first leg, where he scored, and for the first time Arsenal were stretched.
They had no choice but to go for it and Wenger sent on Ramsey for Coquelin and then Theo Walcott for Welbeck. With 11 minutes left they got the second of the night. Monreal’s cross from the left was guided against the post by Walcott’s right foot and, when the ball came back, the defender Layvin Kurzawa panicked and passed it straight to Ramsey. His goal ignited the tie again.
Arsenal’s last clear chance was a back-post header from Sanchez that Subasic clawed away. In the away end they believed that the miracle of Monaco was on but even then it felt like Arsenal had given everything and Ferreira-Carrasco looked like he could hurt them on the counter-attack. Ozil was inconsolable on the final whistle but this is life at Arsenal now, and you wonder when it will ever change.