17 March 2015

An AS Monaco post-mortem: Chelsea, ye shall tremble before us...

We're out of the Champions League again, eliminated on away-goals, despite getting one of the most favourable draws we might have gotten. It hurts. I won't deny it. I had gotten my hopes up before the first leg, thinking we'd find a way past this ballyhooed bastion of bus-parking, but I was wrong. One freak-goal and two moments of madness, and we're reliving the Bayern nightmare, only this time it wasn't a German juggernaut; it was the Monaco minnow. I dared to dream about the Miracle in Monaco, and it looked for long, long stretches as if we would pull it off. Again, however, we fell short. Fine. At least we left a turdblossom behind at the Stade Louis II, proving if nothing that Monaco are not quite the defensive titans they'd been made out to be. Closer to home, we should come away with more than enough momentum to dive back into the Prem run-in with dogged determination.

I'll only dwell on the match itself for a bit before taking a somewhat longer view. We had more than our fair share of chances, and it's more our own fault than it is Monaco's credit that we didn't finish them. Here's a quick run-down (and these are only of the best chances; there was perhaps a dozen more that fizzled out):
  1. Koscielny's shot hits the crossbar, and he's (wrongly) ruled offside.
  2. Welbeck's shot denied (miraculously) by Abdennour, who was lying on his back.
  3. Alexis goes down in the box, booked for diving. While it wasn't a penalty for us, it should not have been a booking against us.
  4. Giroud's flick in from a Welbeck cross goes straight to Subasic.
  5. Özil's free-kick touched over the crossbar by Subasic.
  6. Walcott almost through on goal but denied—was that a backpass to Subasic? Apparently not.
  7. Walcott hits the post (Ramsey scores on the rebound).
  8. Giroud's header is cleared off the line by Subasic.
  9. Mertesacker brought down in the box, no call; then again, no appeals from Gunners.
That's eight gilt-edged chances that went wanting for various reasons. These are not the chances conceded by a staunch, bus-parking squad. These are the chances carved out by an incisive, determined squad. Yes, Monaco set up to do everything it could to deny us, playing a 4-4-1-1 that all but dared us to score. Not only did we accept the dare, we damn-near won it. I won't hone in on it, but it did seem a bit odd that Norwegian referee Svein Oddvar Moen, who found time enough to issue five yellow cards in his last Champions League match, was so gun-shy on this night. Monaco had clearly figured that playing rough and rugged would be tolerated and took it to us early and often. However, once you find yourself turning to the referee, begging for help, you know that you've lost the narrative.

However, now that we're out, it's well-worth remembering that we're far from down. We won, dammit, and ended this miserly side's run of clean sheets and upended its claim to fame. I wish them well and all in the next round, but my focus is now on us. So we won't win the treble this time. So what? We now have a clear agenda in front of us and momentum on our side: win the FA Cup and finish second (or first?) in the Prem. In either case, this result shows that we can punch and punch often, whoever we're facing. For however cynical Monaco are, we pummeled them on their own piss-poor pitch and very nearly pulled off something for the ages. Only two other squads have won at the Stade Louis II, and none since September. That's 22 matches. Of those three losses, only one of them stands out as one in which the visitor—us—had to not only win but win in magnificent style to overcome an away-goals rule. We very nearly did.

For as dispiriting as it may be to come so close only to come up short, do look on the brighter side of things. I won't even bother to suggest that we'd probably draw Bayern, Barcelona, or Real Madrid and get dumped out anyway (although I just did suggest it by saying I won't). In our last three or four outings, we've played some pretty damned-good football, overpowering Man U at Old Trafford to deny them their last best chance at silverware on the season, bullying West Ham to send them that much closer to relegation, and making Monaco cling to a post like a desperate bug in a hurricane.

Some might look at the fact that we came up short in that last one in a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.


Give me Giroud, pressing and harassing and battling; or Özil sprinting and passing and (yes) tackling, both of them joined by Koscielny and Cazorla, Welbeck and Bellerín, and, hell, just about everyone on the pitch playing with grit and passion and determination. If our lads can summon that kind of energy for the last nine Prem matches and the last two (please?) FA Cup matches, well, we might just be celebrating a double. That's right, Chelsea, you who have dropped 14 points from your last 14 matches, you're in the cross-hairs. You couldn't see off a ten-man side despite playing at home, and you've laboured to tepid wins or draws in your last four outings. Meanwhile, we're full of piss and vinegar, and I think I speak for more than a fair-few Gooners when I suggest that our Champions League setback, compared to yours, has us salivating. We know that, if we can play against you as we did against Monaco—heck, as we did against you for long stretches at Stamford Bridge back in October—then the Prem is ours.

Yes, we've crashed out of the Champions League...again. However, we've served notice that we mean business, and when we do, we're deadly. If we can pour just a few drams of Tuesday's passion into future-fixtures, we'll more than make up for the bittersweet aftertaste of coming up just-short against Monaco.

There's something in this result that feels like we've lost a battle but could still win a war. Are you dialed in?

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