By Richard Clarke
For the 12th consecutive season, Arsenal will compete in the Group Stages of the Champions League.
Arsène Wenger’s side secured their berth with a comfortable 3-1 win over Celtic in the Play-Off Round second leg at Emirates Stadium on Wednesday night.
Arsenal already had the cushion of a 2-0 lead going into the game and extended their advantage midway through the half when keeper Artur Boruc was controversially adjudged to have fouled Eduardo in the area. The striker picked himself up to score from the spot.
The decision dominated the game but Arsenal made sure of their progression when Emmanuel Eboue fired low into the area after 53 minutes. Andrey Arshavin added a third 16 minutes from time. Massimo Donati volleyed a goal for Celtic with the last kick of the game but, frankly, it meant little.
In the end this game was a stroll. Wenger’s men had gained a grip on the tie in the first half at Celtic Park last week and never really let go.
Tougher tests surely await in Thursday’s draw however, for now, Arsenal’s European advance is assured.
In the build-up, Wenger had said this game dwarfed Saturday’s trip to Manchester United in terms of importance. At kick-off, only two things belied that assertion – the presence of Robin van Persie and Arshavin on the bench. However the Arsenal manager could argue his rotation this evening was more about freshening up his side for the anticipated physical threat of Celtic.
The other omissions from Saturday’s 4-1 win over Portsmouth were Cesc Fabregas (hamstring) and Kieran Gibbs. The replacements were Nicklas Bendtner, Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy and Alex Song. In addition, Eboue moved forward from full back to the right side of the 4-3-3.
Although Arsenal had that handy lead, Wenger was preaching vigilance before the game. As well as the visitors had played at Celtic Park, there had been fortune in both of their goals and, on the evidence of that game, Tony Mowbray’s side were very capable of providing a difficult evening.
However, in the end, it never came to that.
In the first half, Arsenal dominated once again. And, once again, scored with a stroke of good fortune.
As early as the eighth minute, Clichy clipped the ball inside to Eboue who, in turn, found Bendtner. The Dane produced a stern stab at the near post but Boric batted the ball away. It fell to Eduardo who slid his shot inches beyond the far upright.
Just before the quarter-hour, Denilson scuttled into the area, played a one-two with Eboue and sent a shot into the sidenetting.
Midway through the half, Abou Diaby found Eboue, who swung a shot just wide.
Arsenal were a constant threat. Celtic had not really created any clear chances but they had enjoyed enough possession to cause the odd palpitation in the home defence. William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen were both called upon to make timely interventions from centre back.
However the two teams knew that the first goal would be crucial tonight and, in the end, it went to Arsenal.
Denilson sent Eduardo through on the left of the area and the Croatian striker tumbled as Boruc challenged him. The Polish keeper was furious when referee Manuel Gonzalez pointed to the spot. However the 26-year-old retained his composure and converted coolly from 12 yards.
Five minutes later, the former Dinamo Zagreb striker nearly scored another when he poked a volley just wide.
In the 40th minute, Celtic thought they had grabbed a toe-hold when Scott McDonald turned home a right-wing cross from Marc-Antoine Fortune at the far post. However by the time the ball hit the net, the assistant referee had flagged for offside.
On the half-time whistle, Eduardo produced a swerving shot that the stretching Boruc only just managed to turn aside. From the resulting corner, Bendtner nodded wide when he might have scored.
Surprisingly Celtic’s only change at the break was to swap a defender for a defender. Mowbray’s men needed three goals after all.
Aiden McGeady flashed a curling effort just wide in the opening minute but, by way of reply, Eduardo meandered through only to slice his shot horribly from the edge of the area.
In the 53rd minute, Arsenal finally ended all resistance. Bendtner’s clever backheel from the left flank put Diaby into space in the area. The Frenchman found Eboue, who darted inside Daniel Fox and fired low into the net.
Celtic tried to create some pressure but, by now, they were a spent force. (In contrast their supporters displayed admirable energy).
Wenger started to make changes. On the hour Ramsey replaced Diaby. Ten minutes later, he withdrew the two scorers for Jack Wilshere and Arshavin.
And within three minutes of the substitution the Russian had hit the net himself. Denilson stole the ball in midfield then Arshavin exchanged passes with Ramsey before sending a swivelling shot past Boruc and into the corner of the net.
The game drifted to its dénouement. Arsenal had what they wanted and Celtic could not take it from them.
There was a slight sting in the tail when Donati volleyed home with an improbable cross-shot with the last kick of the game.
But Wenger’s side were safely through.
- Almunia (C)
- Eboue 71 Goal! Yellow Card
- Diaby 61
- Denilson Yellow Card
- Eduardo 71 Goal!
- Ramsey 61
- Arshavin 71 Goal!
- Wilshere 71
- Caldwell (C) 46 Yellow Card
- Maloney 61
- Donati Goal!
- Brown Yellow Card
- McGeady Yellow Card
- O'Dea 46
- Flood 61