By Richard Clarke
Andrey Arshavin opened his Arsenal account in a wonderful fashion as Arsenal beat Blackburn 4-0 and moved into fourth place in the Premier League.
The little Russian was credited with the opening goal after just 80 seconds. But replays proved that Theo Walcott’s low cross went in off Andre Ooijer’s back.
Arsenal dominated after that. However they were in danger of fluffing their lines once more. They created a host chances and missed them all, with Nicklas Bendtner particularly profligate.
But Arshavin dribbled past Danny Simpson to steer home a super solo goal in the 65th minute. The 25-year-old then set up Emmanuel Eboue for a tap-in two minutes from time.
The Ivorian only spent seven minutes on the pitch and would have an incident-packed cameo. In injury time, Carlos Vela was felled in the area and Eboue tucked away an excellent penalty.
Arsenal’s elevation into the top four may last less than 24 hours. But it places a little extra pressure on Aston Villa, who entertain Tottenham on Sunday.
But whatever the result, the Midlanders will be well aware that Wenger’s side are starting to get back to their regal best.
And Arshavin is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown.
This was the second of the three games in three different competitions over the course of six days. Therefore changes were expected in the Arsenal side.
In all there were four. William Gallas, Abou Diaby, Robin van Persie and Eboue dropped out. Johan Djourou, Alex Song, Arshavin and, making his first start in four months, Walcott came in.
While Arsenal had been winning at Roma on Wednesday, Blackburn had gone a long way to securing their Premier League survival with a 2-1 comeback victory at Fulham.
Despite that, their team selection suggested they would be delighted with a point at Emirates this afternoon. Jason Roberts was employed as sole striker ahead of a five-man midfield. Arsenal would need to use craft AND graft today.
There was a good feeling swilling around Emirates Stadium before kick-off. It was not just the success in Italy in the week it was Liverpool’s crushing win at Manchester United an hour or so before kick-off. Not that the result had a major effect on Arsenal, whose sole Premier League aim was a top four spot.
With that in mind, victory was essential today. Previous home draws had not been punished because Aston Villa were wobbling themselves. But, with games running out, Arsenal had to stake their claim.
The time was now and, for once, they would get a little help.
Having gone goalless in the last three Premier League games at Emirates Stadium, you sort of suspected an early goal might come this afternoon. It took just 80 seconds.
Bendtner showed excellent feet in midfield to send Walcott haring down the right-hand channel. The England winger cut the ball back into a ruck of players at the near post. Arshavin was prominent and was credited with the goal initially. However he ran off wagging his finger in denial, replays proved the final touch had come off the sliding Ooijer.
It was the just the boost Arsenal required. As at the Stadio Olimpico, fortunate things were coming on the back of hard work and quality. They looked to profit immediately.
Bendtner shot straight at Paul Robinson and then Arsenal had a shout for a penalty when Stephen Warnock barged over Walcott as he went through.
It was all Arsenal with Bendtner the lynch-pin.
But after El-Hadji Diouf was booked for a nasty looking challenge on Almunia, the visitors started to develop their game. And, in the 25th minute, Morten Gamst Pedersen climbed above Sagna to meet Djourou’s attempted clearance. His header forced Almunia into a desperate, backtracking tip over the bar.
However Blackburn’s rally would be brief. Sagna’s swirling, curling cross was nodded across goal by Bendtner. Then, nine minutes before the break, Nasri planted a 25-yard free-kick against the bar. The ball was hacked clear by the Blackburn defence and Bendtner’s touch allowed Nasri to fire goalward from 12 yards. Robinson’s block was enough to turn the ball behind but it was hardly convincing.
It was hard to think this Arsenal side had been scoreless at both ends for so long. While Wenger’s side were impish and inventive going forward they were hardly watertight in defence. Five minutes from half time an unmarked Aaron Mokoena swept the ball just over the bar from Pedersen’s corner.
Blackburn pushed forward in the dying seconds but their attack this afternoon was more cudgel than rapier. The nearest they came to breaching the Arsenal defence came in injury time when Almunia had to rush out and deny Pedersen.
The home side could have banished any such nervousness in the opening minutes of the second half if they had converted a couple of straightforward chances.
First Bendtner fed Walcott but the midfielder, 20 on Monday, dragged his effort wide. He returned the favour for an even simpler chance seconds later but the Dane sidefooted wide.
Before five minutes were up Robinson had saved well from Walcott and Denilson had seen a ferocious drive blocked by Ooijer.
Arsenal were stoking up the heat on Blackburn with all the chances seemingly falling to Bendtner. He nodded over just before the hour, fired wide just after and then, most profligate of all, dallied when sent clear by Walcott allowing Robinson to save.
Frustration was starting to simmer but Arshavin’s smashing strike relieved all the pressure. When he received the ball on the left in the 65th minute there was little on but he skipped past Danny Simpson on the byline and then, from the tightest of angles, lifted the ball over Robinson and into the far corner.
This one was definitely his.
Djourou nodded over from Nasri’s right-wing free-kick as Arsenal looked for a killer third. At the other end, Almunia clutched a low free-kick from Pedersen. The Spaniard’s handling has been immaculate since the turn of the year.
Bendtner’s work was nearly done but, just before he was substituted in the 80th minute, the Dane ended a trademark Arsenal break by thumping a shot high over the bar.
It had been a tough afternoon for the 21-year-old. He worked wonderfully hard for the cause but had missed a host of chances. Emirates was rightly generous in its support as he went off.
With seven minutes left Wenger brought on Eboue for Nasri. It would turn out to be an influential move. The Ivorian touched home in the 88th minute after Arshavin’ shot was parried by Robinson. Then, in injury time, Vela was clipped by Martin Olsson and Eboue scored confidently from the spot.
It was perhaps apt that Arsenal should end this game by converting a penalty.
Reaching the last eight in Europe is season's one ambition achieved. If they can stay in the top four, that will be another.
Arsenal’s season is ending on a high.
- Toure (C)
- Walcott 79
- Nasri 83
- Arshavin Goal!
- Bendtner 79
- Vela 79
- Diaby 79
- van Persie
- Eboue 83 Goal! Goal!
- Givet 13
- Ooijer Goal! Yellow Card
- Khizanishvili 66 Yellow Card
- Diouf Yellow Card
- Mokoena Yellow Card
- Warnock (C) 55
- McCarthy 66
- Olsson 55
- Dunn 13