David Hytner at the Emirates Stadium
It is the hope that has killed Arsène Wenger so many times over the final traumatic years of his Arsenal tenure. The manager is the eternal optimist, always seeing the good in people and players, and when Alexandre Lacazette headed his team into a 61st minute lead, Wenger could begin to dream.
The 68-year-old has not hidden his desire to walk away from his life’s work at Arsenal with the Europa League – it would be a first trophy of any description for him in Europe – and Lacazette, a former Lyon striker, had moved the club closer to the final, which, coincidentally, will be played in Lyon.
It was a towering leap and wonderful finish, and it cut through the frustrations that Arsenal had felt against an Atlético Madrid team who played from the 10th minute with 10 men. Wenger’s players had created a fistful of chances during a barnstorming opening quarter only to lack a cutting edge and there was the sense that they were running out of ideas.
At 1-0, the evening seemed a whole lot better for Wenger but it would come to feel a whole lot worse. He would later describe 1-0 as the “perfect” scoreline from a home first leg and all Arsenal needed to do was see it out. Wenger noted that Atlético could not get forward with their combination play and so their best chance was the long ball. Arsenal had to guard against it. But they could not.
Laurent Koscielny had the position on Antoine Griezmann but he mucked up his attempt to hook the ball away in darkly comic fashion. It ricocheted off Griezmann and, suddenly, the striker was in.
When his shot was saved by David Ospina and it broke back towards him, Shkodran Mustafi had taken up a good covering position. Then Mustafi slipped. The target looked a little bigger for Griezmann and he squeezed his shot home. Wenger has seen this movie before but its ability to traumatise is undiminished.
“We can only look at ourselves,” the manager said. “We had the chances to be in the final tonight, we were not clinical enough and it’s a bitter taste. We created the anticlimax by giving the goal away and we’re now in a very difficult position.”
Sime Vrsaljko’s early dismissal had shaped the tie, setting a combustible tone, and the Croatia right-back was certainly guilty of a rare form of recklessness, even if both of his cautions were defined by the strictest application of the law.
The first was for a lunge at Jack Wilshere and with that in mind he ought to have thought twice about stretching into a tackle on Lacazette in a non-threatening area. He did not.
Vrsaljko was late and trod on the top of Lacazette’s foot. He gave Clément Turpin a decision to make and the referee duly made it. The notion of a final warning so early in such a big game did not appear to enter his thoughts.
Diego Simeone was incandescent and moments later, after Héctor Bellerín had hacked at Lucas Hernández, the Atlético manager took his protests too far in demanding censure for the Arsenal right-back. Simeone was banished to the stands.
Thereafter, he would pace about the back of the directors’ enclosure, a study in pent-up fury until the release of Griezmann’s equaliser. Simeone would refuse to criticise Turpin but he still managed to get his feelings across. He did not agree with the sending off.
Arsenal had 28 shots to Atlético’s six and in the final analysis, they were left to rue their profligacy – together with the enduring excellence of Jan Oblak – particularly during their purple patch early on. Lacazette had two clear chances before the sending off – a volley that grazed the outside of a post and a header that extended Oblak.
After Vrsaljko and Simeone had departed, Aaron Ramsey saw a shot blocked by Diego Godín; Wilshere headed tamely at Oblak; Danny Welbeck shot at the goalkeeper from a tight-ish angle and Koscielny, in yards of space after Lacazette had flicked on Granit Xhaka’s corner, stretched and sliced wide.
Nacho Monreal also miscued a volley on 31 minutes as Atlético began to tighten up, but the visitors might have hurt Arsenal in the final part of the first-half. Twice Griezmann drew saves from Ospina.
The breakthrough came after Griezmann ill-advisedly tried to play out from the back and was robbed by Monreal. Wilshere crossed and Lacazette scored his seventh goal in seven games. It was merely the prelude to heartache.
Oblak produced a world-class save to keep out a Ramsey header at the end and Simeone was left to purr over a defensive performance that will “go down in Atlético’s European history”. Wenger and Arsenal are not out. Yet they most assuredly feel down.