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19 May 2024, Edition - 3232, Sunday

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Dismal Arsenal limp through in Europa League after Östersund deliver scare



At long last, Arsenal have won a two-legged knockout tie in Europe but this was not the way they envisaged it. Never mind that few people at the club truly want to be in the Europa League, the fact they suffered so sorely against such unfancied opposition as Östersund turned the evening into an ordeal.

Arsène Wenger had to go back to 2009-10 to find his previous success on the continent – a 6-2 aggregate triumph over Porto in the last 16 of the Champions League, which was secured on the back of a 5-0 home victory in the second leg. Nicklas Bendtner scored a hat-trick that night.

The tone was altogether different this time. Leading 3-0 from the first leg in Östersund, it had felt like one of those nothing occasions beforehand – a mere tune-up for a clutch of Arsenal players before Sunday’s Carabao Cup final against Manchester City. How wrong the prediction would prove.

Arsenal were abject in the first half and, when they trailed by two goals after 23 minutes, they were staring at humiliation. For context, Östersund were playing in Sweden’s fourth tier as recently as 2010. They brought next-to-no pedigree. The 5,000-strong band of visiting supporters rubbed their eyes at the latest chapter in their fairytale.

Mercifully for Wenger, his players were better after the interval, although not by much. Sead Kolasinac’s goal allowed them to breathe more easily but it remained an awfully tough watch for the home crowd – and not only when Danny Welbeck tried and failed to finish in front of goal or Henrikh Mkhitaryan tried to do anything. The boos at full-time rang out with feeling.

The attention will now turn to Friday’s draw for the last 16 and Arsenal have a good chance of being paired with a decent team from one of Europe’s top five leagues. Lying in wait are Atlético Madrid from Spain; Borussia Dortmund and Red Bull Leipzig from Germany; Marseille and Lyon from France; Lazio and Milan from Italy. Napoli, the Serie A leaders, might be out – beaten by RB Leipzig – but there remains plenty of danger.

One thing is clear. Arsenal will not make it past anyone – let alone fashion a route back into the Champions League by winning the competition – if they play like this.

It had felt slightly surreal to see them in their blue away kit at home and the pessimists among their fans – of which there are a few –could mutter about their poor record in it. On eight previous airings, they had won only once.

Arsenal had made the gesture to change their colours because Östersund have only a red kit and a white one. The hosts proved even more obliging in the first half. The concessions were the product of abysmal defending, with Calum Chambers particularly culpable, but they had been signposted.

Östersund had frozen at the beginning of the first leg – they were 2-0 down after 24 minutes – but the boot was on the other foot now. They strode forward with conviction while Arsenal were all over the place. That was to put it mildly.

Rob Holding set the tone with a poor back-pass in the first minute and Östersund worked half-chances for Jamie Hopcutt, Brwa Nouri and Ken Sema.

The opening goal stemmed from a Saman Ghoddos ball forward. Holding could not untangle his feet to intercept while Kolasinac was also caught out. Hosam Aiesh had the shooting chance and he aimed for the bottom corner, With the aid of a nick off Chambers, he found it.

Östersund scored again 70 seconds later, after Alex Iwobi had surrendered possession with a heavy touch. The visitors had Sema up against Chambers following Ghoddos’s ball over the top and the danger did not appear pronounced. Perhaps, that is why Héctor Bellerín did not come across to help his team-mate. But when Sema backed into Chambers, worked a little trick and spun away from him, the sirens sounded. The left-sided attacker hammered a low shot into the far corner.

It said everything about Östersund’s first-half superiority that they could play out the final six minutes with 10 men, after Tom Pettersson went off to have stitches in a head wound. Jack Wilshere had Arsenal’s only real chance before the interval but he lifted his shot high.

Wenger’s team stirred upon the second-half restart. Kolasinac thumped home right-footed following an air-kick from Ronald Mukiibi and they would create further chances but it was not Welbeck’s night. Three times he erred when well placed. Wenger withdrew Wilshere on 75 minutes with an eye on Sunday but it was a bad look when Iwobi, who is also in contention for the final, went down with cramp in stoppage-time. It was night of pain for every Arsenal player.

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