Arsene Wenger opted for pragmatism rather than panache today and paid the price as his Arsenal side lost 2-0 in Braga to leave in doubt a berth in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League.
Arsenal are hoping to reach the knockout phase for the 11th consecutive season, but they did their cause no good at all in shipping two late goals to a side they had thumped 6-0 on home turf. Their discomfort was music to the ears of Ukraine's Shakhtar Donetsk, who won 3-0 at tailenders Partizan Belgrade to cement top spot with one match remaining. Donetsk are now through - and likely as group winners - unless they lose by four goals at home to Braga as they lead Group H by three points.
Arsenal, runners up in 2006, will expect to see off Belgrade in their final group meeting to take them onto 12 points, however recent performances would advise against complacency. Shakhtar will be favoured to beat Braga at home, leaving the English Premier League side to face a group winner in the next round assuming they belatedly make it through.
"It was a difficult game against a team that used all the tricks to slow the game down," said Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. "We didn't create many chances." The Arsenal boss also believes his side suffered from a "minumum of communication" in defence but remained hopeful. "I am confident we'll make it. We will have to be a bit more patient," Wenger said.
Sporting Braga coach Domingos Paciencia said that his side had managed to overcome something of an inferiority complex in the first-half and be bolder in the second period.
"Everything changed in the second-half for us. The team (Sporting) was a lot calmer. It put aside its fears, and began to better master the game and succeeded in keeping the ball for longer," he said.
Matheus Leite Nascimento's left-footed scoop over Lukas Fabianski in the Arsenal goal after a hopeful punt through the middle and then a fine solo effort beating three defenders delighted Portuguese fans as Braga claimed a win which keeps them - just - in the hunt for a last 16 place. The Gunners, who rested Robin van Persie and Andrei Arshavin, had only themselves to blame as they simply did not do enough against a mediocre side - even if they belatedly showed some urgency in the final quarter, thus leaving them exposed to Matheus' crucial interventions nine minutes from time and on the final whistle.
Just before the opener, Arsenal were unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty after substitute Marouane Chamakh - on for the ineffectual Nicklas Bendtner - set up Mexican Carlos Vela, who replaced Theo Walcott in the closing stages. The Mexican tumbled to the ground under challenge from Alberto Rodriguez, and instead of a hoped-for spotkick earned only a booking from Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai - although television replays suggested a foul had been committed. Skipper Cesc Fabregas made a surprise start for Arsenal despite a hamstring problem but was not his usual probing self and gave way to Samir Nasri on 70 minutes when a draw looked inevitable.
Arsenal had seen their mental strength called into question after they squandered a 2-0 lead in going down to North London rivals Tottenham at the weekend for a third home league loss of the season and more questionmarks will be placed at their door after today's showing. Although they were up against a side wearing the Londoners' usual kit of red and white their hosts initially showed no signs of wanting to play in adventurous Wenger-style fashion, content instead to adopt an ultra-cautious approach which frustrated their guests throughout.
Freekicks from Fabregas and Walcott saw them come close - but Arsenal showed little else at the Estadio Municipal and may live to regret the space given to Matheus in the closing stages who punished the favourites dearly, and his second emphatically.