By Chris Harris in Glasgow
Arsenal are on the cusp of the Champions League group stage after a hard-fought win at Parkhead on Tuesday night.
Arsène Wenger’s side controlled much of this high-octane first leg but they needed a slice of luck in either half to secure victory.
William Gallas deflected Cesc Fabregas’ shot past Artur Boruc to break the deadlock two minutes before the interval and Gary Caldwell turned Gael Clichy’s cross past his own keeper to double the advantage with 20 minutes left.
There is still work to be done – Dinamo Moscow won here in the previous round and were still eliminated – but Arsenal are now firm favourites to book their place in the group stage for a 12th consecutive year.
Wenger waited anxiously for news on the fitness of Fabregas, Denilson and Bacary Sagna on the morning of the match. All three picked up knocks at Everton; all three were passed fit to play. That allowed the Arsenal boss to name an unchanged line-up with Abou Diaby, back from a groin injury, among the substitutes.
Gloomy weather engulfed Glasgow ahead of the match but that was never going to dampen the spirits of the Parkhead crowd. Much was made of the “special noise” Celtic fans produce and they lived up to their billing here.
A wall of sound greeted the two teams as they emerged from the tunnel and the home fans cheered in expectation as well as hope. After all Celtic had only lost once in eight European ties against English opposition at this ground. Manchester United were vanquished three years ago; would Arsenal go the same way?
Predictably, Celtic snapped into tackles from the off but Arsenal matched them for graft with Denilson and Alex Song doing plenty of dirty work.
The home side’s plan was clear: get the ball wide to Shaun Maloney and Scott Brown and test the visitors with crosses into the area. That’s exactly what happened in the opening minutes as Maloney’s fizzing delivery flashed across the six-yard box.
It was a warning for Arsenal and they heeded it, closing down the Celtic wingers and keeping those crosses down to a minimum. With that avenue more or less closed off, Wenger’s side pushed forward to create opportunities of their own.
They were hard to come by. Massimo Donati’s hesitancy forced keeper Boruc to hurry one clearance with Fabregas lurking and Andrey Arshavin put the ball in the net from an offside position. The Russian cut inside to try his luck later in the half but a block took the sting out of his shot.
Indeed, Celtic were giving as good as they got. Only a wonderful last-ditch challenge from Thomas Vermaelen denied Brown as he prepared to full the trigger at the end of a pacy counter-attack. And the same man forced a save from Manuel Almunia with a low shot from 12 yards.
The two defences held sway and it took a big slice of luck to prise the teams apart. Fortunately, fortune favoured the Gunners.
Van Persie tapped a free-kick to Fabregas 30 yards from goal, the captain fired in a shot and the ball deflected off Gallas and into the corner. Boruc seemed to have Fabregas’ effort covered but he was left completely wrong-footed by the ball’s change of direction.
That would have made Arsenal’s half-time refreshment taste all the sweeter and they emerged for the second half seemingly determined to take the game away from Celtic.
Van Persie slid a shot just past Boruc’s left-hand post after Arshavin had charged through the centre and picked out the Dutchman. Denilson curled a fine effort just wide seconds later and Van Persie was back in the thick of it soon afterwards, scuffing a shot off target.
Bendtner tried his luck too but, once again, Arsenal needed a touch of fortune to break down their opponents.
It came 20 minutes from time when Clichy sped down the left and arrowed a cross towards the six-yard box. Van Persie and Bendtner were lurking but they weren’t needed as Caldwell turned the ball past Boruc.
It was tough on the hosts but Arsenal were worth their lead. The goals had been fortuitous but they had controlled possession and territory after the break.
“We’re all going on a European tour!” was the chant from the away end. They are probably right – but this job still needs finishing at the Emirates.
- Gallas Goal!
- Clichy Yellow Card
- Arshavin 69
- Diaby 69
- Fox Yellow Card
- Loovens Yellow Card
- N'Guemo 76 Yellow Card
- Donati 56
- Samaras 56
- McDonald 56
- McCourt 76
- Fortune 56