By Richard Clarke in Prague
Goals from Cesc Fabregas and Alex Hleb gave Arsenal a highly-satisfying 2-0 win at Sparta Prague on Wednesday night.
At half time, Arsène Wenger's side were struggling in this Champions League third qualifying round first leg tie. The Czech champions had bossed the first 45 minutes with a mixture of strong tackles and sturdy organisation.
It was the sort of game that Arsenal have struggled to cope with in recent years but tonight they blossomed. Mathieu Flamini, Robin van Persie and Fabregas had all received bookings in a niggly first half but they kept their nerve as Arsenal took control in the latter stages of the second period.
The all-important goal came in the 72nd minute when Gael Clichy stormed up field, beat two defenders and then squared for Fabregas to score with ease. In injury time, Bacary Sagna set-up Alex Hleb to roll home a second.
It might make the second leg little more than an academic exercise.
Wenger named the same starting XI as Sunday for a tie he had described as "vital" for Arsenal's season. With Eduardo (ankle), Emmanuel Adebayor (groin), Abou Diaby (ankle), Denilson (ankle) and Gilberto (fatigue) all injured there was not too much room for manoeuvre in all honesty.
The newly re-named Axa Arena held the happiest of memories for Arsenal. Wenger's side had brought home 1-0 and 2-0 victories in previous Champions League visits over the last seven years. The latter had been Thierry Henry's night when he came off the bench to famously smash the club's goal-scorer.
That evening a weak Sparta side had been brushed aside without Arsenal having to leave second gear. Tonight the Czech champions would show much more metal.
Backed by a raucous crowd they tore into the visitors from the whistle and had already enjoyed a couple of serious half-chances before they could - and should - have taken the lead in the ninth minute.
Pavel Horvath floated a teasing cross from the left flank to the far post where Jan Rezek volleyed a fierce cross-shot back across goal. It looked destined for the net as soon as it left his foot but Jens Lehmann thrust out his right leg to deflect the ball on to the inside of the post. It cannoned out into a crowded area and Arsenal managed to smuggle the ball away. A huge let-off.
It was perhaps the shuddering wake-up call Arsenal needed. Within a minute, Van Persie chested the ball down for Fabregas to crack an effort wide then the Dutchman's bending free-kick forced keeper Tomas Postulka to nervously punch clear.
But Arsenal's ascendancy would not last. Midway through the half Lubos Husek emerged down the right-hand channel and thumped a rising drive over the angle of post and bar. Shortly afterwards it took a wonderfully crisp tackle from Lehmann to dispossess Rezek after the lively striker had been sent clear the same way.
Nine minutes before the break, Sparta lost Tomas Repka to injury. The former West Ham defender had his critics during his time in England but the huge ovation he was afforded by the home support illustrated his importance to the Sparta fans.
Arsenal continued to attack with purpose down the flanks until the break but their inquisitive crosses were always answered by the head of a Sparta defender.
It had been a tetchy, tense half but it did not deserve the five bookings handed out by referee Luis Medina Cantalejo. Still Wenger must have been grateful for the whistle as his side had been far from their best.
Once again, the hosts were quicker off the blocks at the start of the second half. Compact, organised and physical, this Sparta side was starting to become an important test of Arsenal's guts and character - something they had been accused of lacking in the Premiership over the past two seasons.
Ten minutes after the break, Rosicky cut in from the left hand byline and tapped a cute ball to Van Persie in the area. The Dutchman conjured himself some space with a trademark turn and fired an angled low shot towards the far post. It took a smart save from Postulka to prevent it finding the net.
It was Arsenal's clearest chance of the game by a stretch and, in the minutes that followed, they built on it. The visitors sustained pressure on Sparta for the first time in the game and just past the hour nearly got their reward when Zdenek Pospech deflected Van Persie's whipped cross inches past the far post.
In the 72nd minute they grabbed that vital away goal. Clichy ripped open the Sparta defence with a mazy run and opened up the space for Fabregas to slot the ball past Postulka from the edge of the area.
During the celebration the Spaniard gestured that his French colleague deserved the credit for the goal. It had been less of an assist, more an offering on a silver platter.
However Sparta were not spent and it took an alert sliding tackle by Flamini to steal the ball from the toes of Kulic when the host tried a clever free-kick a minute later. The same striker then forced Lehmann to tip a shot around his own post.
Sparta were gambling so with 10 minutes left Wenger stiffened his midfield by bringing on Alex Song for Rosicky.
In the latter stages, Lehmann made his second great save of the night when he tipped aside Dosek's header. Fabregas dispossessed Martin Abraham as he seemed set to score.
They pushed forward in the dying seconds for the last time and it cost them. Arsenal broke forward quickly from a Sparta corner and this time it was the other full back, Bac Sagna, who set up Hleb to steer home the second.
- Flamini Yellow Card
- Hleb Goal!
- Fabregas Goal! Yellow Card
- Rosicky 80
- Persie Yellow Card
- Song 80
- Repka 37
- Horvath 86
- Hasek Yellow Card
- Rezek 59
- Kulic Yellow Card
- Limbersky 86
- Brezinsky 37
- Matusovic 59