Arsenal still lack ruthless edge
For 45 minutes at the Emirates, everything was going to plan for Mikel Arteta and Arsenal. Bar one typically Arsenal piece of defending to a simple long ball, they were already planning who they might like to face in the last eight.
But when the visitors re-emerged for the second half and upped the tempo and intensity, throwing caution to the wind to overturn a two-goal deficit, within six minutes they’d crumbled.
The soft underbelly which Mikel Arteta has done so much good work to begin to harden – look at their record against top-six opposition for one – is still there, somewhere. Even after riding out the pressure in Greece, even after coming from behind to beat Tottenham on Sunday.
It is hard to be too harsh on this Arsenal side, because they might have not just cracked under the pressure in recent years, they might have gone under. Like they did against this same opposition 12 months ago.
But there is a reason the Emirates trophy cabinet, bar an impressive number of FA Cup titles, has remained largely bare recently. They still haven’t got that ruthless edge back which so many clubs would have killed for in the early-2000s.
Arteta is turning things around, make no mistake. But he was bang on the money in his assessment of his side’s performance.
“We have to be much more efficient, much more simple, much more cohesive as a team,” he said. Things are not far off, but may be the fine margin between glory and failure in the Europa League this season. Arsenal have the firepower to win the Europa League. Do they have the mentality?
Why Spurs’ exit is disastrous
“That is one of the worst performances from Tottenham that I have seen in a long time,” Jamie O’Hara told Sky Sports News after Spurs were dumped out of the Europa League by Dinamo Zagreb – and it’s hard to disagree with him.
Tottenham needed a big reaction after a negative showing in their biggest Premier League game of the season against Arsenal. Surely a trip to Dinamo Zagreb in the Europe League with a 2-0 lead already from the first leg was the perfect chance?
In actual fact, it turned out to be one of their worst showings of the season, possibly even of the last few years.
Spurs had no control over the game. There was no tempo, too many mistakes, the defending was incredibly scrappy and they had no idea how to handle Zagreb. And with respect to their opponents, Zagreb are an average team, but they took advantage of Tottenham’s glaring insecurities.
The first half was pretty tepid, and you thought Spurs might see it out and go through by the skin of their teeth. But even after the sensational and inevitable first goal, there was no reaction. There was a small rally after the second, but it wasn’t until they were 3-0 down in extra time and staring down the barrel of a shock Europa League exit that some form of quality began to emerge. But it was all too little, too late.
Make no mistake about it – Tottenham being knocked out of the Europa League is bad. Just a few years ago, they were Champions League finalists and finally competing regularly at Europe’s top table – something they had chased for many years. But it was the manner in which they were knocked out with such an abject performance that makes it so disastrous.
They must now turn their attentions back to the Premier League to try and secure a European spot. They are currently seventh, which has been enough in recent seasons for a place in the Europa League qualifiers. But there will be no appetite at Spurs for another lengthy qualifying campaign.
There is also the Carabao Cup final, another route into Europe, but only in the newly formed Europa Conference League – set to be the third tier of European competition from the start of next season. There will be no appetite for that either.
But where Mourinho really needs to start is injecting some belief and quality back into his side – which seems to have evaporated from their five victories before Sunday’s defeat. Because without winning performances, their season will end with nothing to show for it.
Pogba adds touch of class to rescue Man Utd
This had the look of a Europa League contest during a tentative opening half at an empty San Siro between two illustrious names of the European game.
So much was at stake, but the stars of AC Milan and Manchester United were made to sit patiently on the bench. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wasted little time in summoning his difference-maker, however, when it was clear that Marcus Rashford was in no position to continue at the interval.
An inspired substitution or one born out of necessity, Paul Pogba was positioned on the left side of the front three. One may have wondered what kind of impact he would make having missed the past five-and-a-half weeks with a thigh injury.
Within three minutes, we had our answer as a feint with his right foot, followed by a calm dink over Gianluigi Donnarumma, provided United with the crucial advantage in the tie, and one they would not relinquish.
Pogba has scored in each of his last two away games versus Milan (also for Juventus in April 2016) – while this was just his second ever goal as a substitute for United in what was his 31st such appearance. This was a big cameo.
On Pogba’s performance, Solskjaer said: “We’ve missed Paul. He’s been out for almost two months and any team would miss a player like Paul Pogba. He is very important for us and he’s going to give us a big boost. He makes a very, very big difference to us.”
Twelve points better off in the Premier League than they were at this stage last season, and still with a chance of winning two trophies, Solskjaer has a vital component back just at the crucial moment.
There has often been a lot of talk surrounding Pogba, often propagated by his agent, but United feel his absence when he is not in the side. Their league hopes were extinguished over the 10 games in which he was sidelined, but having him fit again not only adds a touch of class, it makes them a team to avoid in Friday’s quarter-final draw.
Rangers’ proud home record goes after record-breaking reds
All good things have to come to an end eventually and that was the case at Ibrox on Thursday evening as Rangers incredibly suffered their first home defeat of the season, having been unbeaten in all 21 matches at home in all competitions heading into the tie.
What a time for that proud record to go up in smoke though.
Steven Gerrard’s side had appeared to be in the driving seat heading into the second leg of their Europa League last-16 tie with Slavia Prague after leaving the Czech capital with a creditable 1-1 draw last week.
However, Slavia are a tough nut to crack, as Leicester City also found out in the last 32, running out as deserved 2-0 winners on the night to take their place in the next round.
The home team’s chances were not helped, though, after they had two players – Keemar Roofe and Leon Balogun – sent off sent off in the same game in Europe for the very first time.