No European Honours For Wenger’s Arsenal Career
With the loss in Madrid on Thursday, Arsene Wenger can officially close the book on his European career at Arsenal. The Frenchman will end his reign in North London without silverware in his final season in charge, and he also leaves without a single trophy in Europe, despite perennial participation in the Champions League and one season in the Europa League. Wenger was distraught following the defeat, scarcely able to hide his pain when confronted by cameras following the match. Many will feel as if his players let him down over 2 legs, but the boss was in no mood to point a finger of blame following the match.
While the loss will cut deep in the hearts of Arsenal supporters for some time to come, this was never a team that looked destined to cover itself in glory this season. They played a very strong Europa League campaign, and arrived in the semifinals very convincingly as one of the competitions strongest sides. However, they were unfortunate to run into a supremely well-drilled and exerienced Atleti that looked capable of suffocating any team in the world with their performance. In retrospect, losses in 2006 and 2011 to Barcelona in the Champions League will likely be remembered as the more painful European defeats, and fans will always wonder what could have happened during the 2004 Invincibles season had they not slipped up in the Champions League quarterfinals to Chelsea.
Going into Madrid to beat this Atleti side was always going to be a tough ask for the Gunners, but that task got even more difficult in the 12th minute when Laurent Koscielny seemingly collapsed out of nowhere, immediately grabbing for his ankle in intense distress. Away from the action, and merely following the play up the pitch, the defender’s lower leg buckled violently, and the pessimistic early reports are that he has ruptured his Achilles tendon. An injury of this magnitude generally takes at least 6 months to heal back to playing condition following a surgical reattachment or repair.
In hindsight, it seems that Koscielny was always playing on borrowed time this season with his baulky Achilles. It has become increasingly known that he has been forced to undergo regular injections to be able to play, and it is an issue the 32 year old would likely have to manage for the rest of his career, regardless of the current prognosis. Koscielny is almost certainly done for the season, and his World Cup dreams are probably over. He will be 36 the next time the World Cup comes around, and though few could doubt the Frenchman’s talent or determination to get there, his body may just let him down.
The Arsenal Killer
Footballers are competitive beings by nature, but some players seem to particularly relish beating certain teams. Whether it is a past incident or the opponent’s philosophy is so diametrically opposed to the player’s own sensibilities, these players will always rise to the occasion when the opportunity to beat and humiliate that opponent comes around. For Diego Costa, that team is Arsenal. It hasn’t mattered in the past if he was nursing a muscular issue, a high ankle sprain, or simply atrocious form, he always plays well against the Gunners, agitating the defence into costly errors all the while. Arsene Wenger would have been forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief when the Brazilian born Spanish international left Chelsea to return to Atletico Madrid, but alas, he still came back to haunt the Frenchman.
So significant is his mental edge over the Gunners, Diego Simeone brought him along for the first leg despite Costa having very little chance of playing. He was plenty recovered for the second leg however, and it was he who scored the lone goal of the match, beating an on-rushing David Ospina and tearing away to celebrate with the ebullient home crowd. He beat the much-maligned Hector Bellerin to the ball for the goal, with the fullback slow to react to the developing play. It didn’t need to happen for Atleti to advance to the final, having the advantage on away goals, but it was the dagger in the heart of Arsene Wenger’s swan song, and now he must watch his ultimate on-pitch agitator compete for a trophy.
2 Legs, 2 Mistakes, 2 Goals
In a season that has been riddled with the most maddening of individual mistakes, perhaps it was only fitting that 2 such mistakes would effectively end the Gunners season. There has been much hand wringing over the Antoine Griezmann goal that never should have happened in the first leg, with Laurent Koscielny particularly incensed with himself over his botched clearance, and there is sure to be a lot more following Diego Costa’s goal in the second leg. Hector Bellerin has become a divisive figure this season at the club, with many fans becoming frustrated with his hair, his clothes, and his penchant for a mental blunder on the pitch, while others have preached patience with a supremely talented young player.
Regardless what might be in store for the Spaniard’s career, he simply should have done better on Costa’s goal. He has the pace to easily stay with the striker if he is aware enough to recognise the danger in his movement. It was the sort of moment that has undone Arsenal time and again in the last several seasons, and it was the kind of moment Atletico did not allow themselves to make. Bellerin simply has to be there to make that play.
No Cazorla Comeback in Europe This Season
Though it hardly matters in the broader picture of the Arsenal season, fans and the club were denied the opportunity to see Santi Cazorla make an emotional return to the pitch for the Europa League Final. It would have been wonderful to see the little Spaniard, who has gone through almost unimaginable anguish and constant setbacks take his position once again with his teammates. There is a joy and a cheekiness to his play that not only produces moments of individual brilliance, but also puts his teammates at ease. Few teams in football have missed a player as much as Arsenal have missed their humorous heart of their midfield.
It has been more than a year since Cazorla hit the floor in garbage time of a game the Gunners had comfortably in hand. The resulting surgeries and infection and fear clearly depressed Cazorla, who spent a lot of time at home and away from the team recovering. He caused quite a stir when pictures emerged showing him running on the pitch with fitness guru Darren Burgess prior to a match last week. For fans and Cazorla himself, there will be a tremendous amount of hope that with a positive stride to finish the season and a summer of rest and training with his teammates, the diminutive playmaker will grace the Emirates pitch once more.