It’s pain in Spain for Arsenal

The Sevillistas showed the real face of the club as they inflicted Arsenal’s first defeat since April 7, against West Ham United last season. By David Hytner.

It is a question that has swirled for some months. How will Arsene Wenger’s bold young blend respond to defeat? The game will now find out. On a tumultuous night in southern Spain Wenger courted risk with his team selection, leaving a host of established names from his starting team.

Sevilla made him pay with a performance of high-octane class. They scored twice inside 10 breathtaking first-half minutes, through Seydou Keita and Luis Fabiano, before Frederic Kanoute set the seal on a victory that means Sevilla jump over Arsenal to the top of Champions League Group H. Although Arsenal had already qualified, they will not relish going through in second place. A meeting with a European superpower would be virtually guaranteed.

This was the first time that Arsenal had tasted defeat since April 7, against West Ham United last season — their run in all competitions stood at 28 matches — and it was all too much for Wenger. With passions boiling, he clashed with Eric Braamhaar, the referee, who had an indifferent evening, and he was ordered from his technical area. Bemused as to why and having initially found no way into the stand, he spent the final 10 minutes of the game peering over an advertising hoarding as his team tried but failed to come back. They were finally buried by Kanoute’s precision penalty.

Wenger got performances from Emmanuel Eboue and Nicklas Bendtner but Sevilla merited the success. There had been the scent of revenge in the air at the Sanchez Pizjuan. Sevilla have not been allowed to forget their 3-0 reverse in the opening tie at Emirates Stadium and there were pledges from the dressing-room to “show the real face” of the club. Arsenal’s complexion was paler than usual. Wenger made seven changes from the team that beat Wigan in the Premiership on November 24, his “gamble” of leaving William Gallas and Emmanuel Adebayor to rest at home supplemented by the surprise omissions from the starting line-up of Bacary Sagna and Tomas Rosicky.

The atmosphere was frenzied at kick-off yet Arsenal were composed and they inflicted a blow, following a lightning counter, that momentarily sucked the breath from the Sevillistas. Eboue’s backheel down the line on the right was audacious and it stayed in for Bendtner, who flung over a cross that eluded Federico Fazio and found Eduardo. There was suddenly a gilt-edged opportunity and, although Daniel Alves muscled back, Eduardo showed his strength to withstand him before drawing Andres Palop, the goalkeeper, and poking home. It was the Croatia international’s fifth and most important goal since his summer arrival from Dinamo Zagreb.

Sevilla have endured a difficult start to the season. Results have been erratic, the club lie 10th in La Liga but their offensive threat remains potent. They gave a blistering demonstration of it as first Keita restored parity and then Fabiano glanced them in front from Alves’ free-kick. Keita’s strike was a beauty. Philippe Senderos’ mis-kick was seized upon by Jesus Navas and, when his cross was half-cleared by Gilberto Silva, Keita made the sweetest of connections with the outside of his boot from the edge of the area.

The spotlight shifted on to Braamhaar on 65 minutes when Senderos leaned into Alves’ cross with his upper arm. The ball struck him there and Braamhaar pointed to the spot. He was swayed, however, after consultation with his linesman and, amid farcical scenes, he rescinded the award. The home crowd howled.

The referee finally gave a penalty when Toure and Sagna, on as a substitute, combined to pull Kanoute back. As Sevilla rejoiced at the final whistle, Wenger beat a hasty retreat.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007