Arsenal edges past Porto on penalties to reach Champions League ...

13 Mar 2024

Emirates Stadium, London CNN  — 

If Arsenal fans had forgotten just how tense and grueling the Champions League knockout stages can be, their memories will now certainly be refreshed after a thrilling 4-2 penalty shootout victory over Porto in the round of 16.

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It had been seven years since the Gunners last played at this stage of European football’s premier competition - and 14 years since it last progressed to the quarterfinals - and there was a real sense of occasion inside the Emirates Stadium as the Champions League anthem sounded once again in this part of north London.

Porto arrived defending a 1-0 lead from the first leg, but Leandro Trossard drew Arsenal level in the first half with an inch-perfect finish after being found by Martin Odegaard’s smart reverse pass.

Despite Arsenal pressure and chances for both sides, neither team was able to find the goal that would have won the tie and it finished 1-0 on the night after extra time.

Eventually, it was Arsenal’s players who held their nerve to score all four of their penalties, as Brazilians Wendell and Galeno saw their spot kicks saved by the outstanding David Raya.

On a raucous night, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta said this was probably the best atmosphere he’d experienced at the Emirates Stadium since taking over as manager in 2019.

“They were amazing,” he said of the home supporters, describing the night as “magical.”

The 3,000 travelling Porto fans packed into the famous Clock End corner of the stadium were in fine voice well over an hour before kick off, serenading their goalkeepers as they emerged from the tunnel for the pre-match warm ups.

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The rest of the squad received an even more vociferous welcome when they came out half an hour later, with evergreen 41-year-old captain Pepe leading the applause of the boisterous away support.

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta had urged Gunners fans to “bring the noise” for the team’s first home knockout tie in the Champions League since 2017 and they duly obliged as the teams prepared to emerge for kick off, filling the north London sky with a bellowing rendition of the club’s anthem, ‘North London Forever.’

There is a tangible belief among fans that this Arsenal team can make some serious noise in this season’s competition, rather than just being happy to be back in Europe’s premier tournament, but Tuesday’s game will be a stark reminder at just how brutal the Champions League can be.

It was Arsenal, as expected, that had the better of the opening exchanges, but a poor header from defender William Saliba gifted Porto striker Evanilson an opportunity that he flashed just wide of the far post from outside the area.

It was a reminder of the threat this Porto team possessed – if Arsenal still needed one after Galeno’s late, long-range sucker punch in the first leg.

It was a warning Arsenal evidently didn’t heed as, only moments later, the defense allowed Evanilson time in the penalty area to control a pass and fire a shot at goal, with only a smart save from Raya keeping the scores level.

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For all of Arsenal’s early dominance, Porto was gradually rising to the occasion but with five minutes remaining of the half, the away side’s good work in the opening 40 minutes was undone.

Odegaard’s sublime pass found Trossard in space inside the area and the Belgian stroked the ball unerringly into the bottom corner of the net.

The Emirates, which had been simmering with noise and expectation since long before kick off, finally erupted.

That strike propelled Arsenal forward in the second half, though Porto looked increasingly content with sitting back and absorbing the pressure.

The home side finally looked as though it had gone ahead in the tie for the first time as Pepe got his feet in a tangle while defending a long ball, allowing Odegaard to chip the ball into the empty net.

After a brief review, however, VAR ruled the goal out for a foul on goalkeeper Diogo Costa - perhaps one of the softer decisions you’re likely to see in the this season’s tournament.

Arteta, who looked to be covering as much ground as his players while flitting around his technical area and shouting instructions, was indignant after the decision and was shown a yellow card for his protests.

Though defending was now undoubtedly Porto’s priority, the team still looked dangerous on its occasional foray forward with Francisco Conceição testing Raya with a low shot after a swift counterattack.

Arsenal continued to press and had chances to win the tie through Bukayo Saka and Odegaard, but there was an increasing inevitably that the tie would be going to extra time.

After a riveting 90 minutes, extra time was largely a non-event, with the highlight coming when Kai Havertz pushed Porto manager Sergio Conceição to spark a tussle on the touchline.

The home advantage seemed to prove piviotal in the penalty shootout. Faced by a wall of noise and twirling red and white scarves, Wendell and Galeno were unable to maintain their focus and the duo’s missed penalties proved costly for Porto as Arsenal fans serenaded their manager with one final rendition of ‘Super Mik Arteta.’

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