Arsenal end Champions League curse as Arteta reshapes club

LONDON — Arsenal‘s round-of-16 curse in the Champions League is finally broken. It required a penalty shootout at the end of a gruelling 120 minutes — in which FC Porto tested the Gunners’ patience in almost every conceivable way — but they’ve reached the quarterfinals for the first time since 2010.

As manager, Mikel Arteta inherited a glass ceiling of seven consecutive exits at this stage from 2011 to 2017 — five of which he was on the books as a player — but at the first time of asking on their return to Europe’s leading club competition, it has been shattered.

“For them to do it when the club hasn’t managed to do it for 14 years, I tell you it will be a boost,” Arteta said after Tuesday’s match. “The margins are so small. You find a way to do it again. I see how much they want it, how much they try, and they are able to sacrifice anything to win. When you play like this at the end, good things are going to come your way.”

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The Gunners might not have been entirely convincing here, dragged down to Porto’s level in a match that leaned into gamesmanship and hostility rather than technical football. It led to both managers receiving yellow cards in separate incidents and further angry words exchanged were between the pair at fulltime.

But the technical performances can come later. Arteta’s mission is to redefine Arsenal as serial challengers for the game’s biggest prizes, as for too many years under previous manager Arsene Wenger the Gunners were almost a laughingstock when the knockout rounds came. Not anymore.

Trailing 1-0 from the first leg, Leandro Trossard hauled Arsenal level in the tie with a 41st-minute strike, which owed everything to the sharp feet and vision of Martin Odegaard in creating the opportunity.

Porto proved obdurate opponents, exaggerating contact all over the pitch but also pressing with intelligence and bravery to ensure the second half wasn’t merely an attempt to repel wave after wave of Arsenal attacks. In fact, in extra time, the Gunners managed just one shot.

But when it mattered, Odegaard, Kai Havertz, Bukayo Saka and Declan Rice held their nerve in the shootout while Wendell and Galeno had their spot kicks brilliantly saved by David Raya to ensure this young Arsenal side broke new ground.

“What we expected, a really tough opponent, really well organised and very difficult to generate constant momentum in the game,” Arteta said. “That’s credit to them. We did it. We scored a beautiful goal, and then we insisted in different ways. We had to do it at the end with the penalties. We prepared well. Credit to the coaches and the ones who took them.”

It was the first time the Champions League has had a shootout since the 2016 final — which, amazingly, also involved Pepê, who at 41 became the first player over 40 to appear in this competition.

With that, Arsenal banished another demon after losing in the first ever shootout at Emirates Stadium in last year’s Europa League round-of-16 clash — against another Portuguese opponent, Sporting Lisbon.

Arteta will feel many of his calls have been vindicated: starting Trossard in place of the injured Gabriel Martinelli and, most obviously, bringing in Raya despite Aaron Ramsdale doing little wrong in last season’s title push.

Asked how he knew Raya would be able to cope with high-pressure moments in goal, Arteta said: “I didn’t have to see him today; I was convinced he could.”

“You see him those first few days here — what he had to go through and how he did it with that composure,” Arteta added. “You look at his body language and the decisions that he takes, he doesn’t get very affected. That’s a key quality for that position.”

Losing here could have had the same debilitating effect as last season, when that exit to Sporting precipitated a domestic run of form that ultimately cost Arsenal the Premier League title after winning just three of their last nine games.

Tuesday’s result, Arteta will hope, could have the opposite effect.

“That’s the way you have to look at it right now,” he said. “If you’re out, you think, ‘One less competition, that’s great for the league.’ Now we’re in, it’s the energy that it brings among the squad. It can be very powerful and very useful.

“It’s another big step, especially as a club. For seven years, we haven’t been in this competition, and for 14 years, we haven’t got this far. That tells you the difficulty of it. We want more, and we’re going to go for it, that’s for sure.”