By Richard Clarke in Liege
Arsenal started their Champions League Group H campaign with a bang by producing a stunning second-half comeback at Standard Liege on Wednesday.
Arsène Wenger's side were 2-0 down after a crazy first five minutes. Eliaquim Mangala was given room to fire home a shot from just outside the area then William Gallas clipped Milan Jovanovic, who picked himself up and scored from the penalty spot.
The Arsenal ship listed for a while but, on his 100th Arsenal appearance, Nicklas Bendtner scored on the half-time whistle to anchor them once more.
The visitors dominated the second half and took their opportunities when Liege tired. Thomas Vermaelen forced the ball home from close range in the 79th minute, though replays suggested Alex Song may have been offside in the build-up. Eduardo twisted the knife two minutes later by nudging home a Cesc Fabregas corner with his knee.
It was sweet ending to a bitter saga for the Croatian. He was only playing in this game because his European ban for "deceiving the referee" in Arsenal's last Champions League game had been annulled on Monday.
This game was typical of Arsenal's season so far. Frenetic pace, loads of incident and netfuls of goals.
But after that terrible start they were just grateful to be leaving with maximum points..
Even though Wenger was without nine players for Arsenal's first game in Belgium since 1993, the manager still decided to rest a 10th. Bacary Sagna was left on bench so Emmanuel Eboue operated at right back.
The players left at home were: Manuel Almunia (chest infection), Theo Walcott, Denilson (both back), Robin van Persie (knee), Samir Nasri (leg), Andrey Arshavin (groin), Lukasz Fabianski, Johan Djourou (both knee) and Carlos Vela (ankle).
Those absences meant keeper Vito Mannone came in for only his second appearance for Arsenal and only his sixth match as a professional. As expected, Tomas Rosicky made his first Arsenal start since January 2008. However it was somewhat surprising to see the Czech international employed on the right wing rather than the left. Eduardo took that role while Bendtner the central spearhead.
What the Stade Maurice Dufrasne lacked in size and grace, it more than made up for in passion and intensity. This was industrial Belgium and the locals had a devotion to their side akin to Northern England. Before kick-off, the fans made Arsenal well aware they were on hostile territory.
However they probably did not realise just how much until exactly four minutes, four seconds had elapsed.
That was the time on the Liege scoreboard when Jovanovic stroked home from the spot to put the home side 2-0 up. What had transpired before that has been bewildering an excruciating in equal measure.
Liege took the lead in the second minute with, from Arsenal's perspective, an entirely avoidable goal.
Miscommunication between Mannone and Alex Song saw the defender give away a corner under little real pressure. Arsenal got away the initial ball but could not clear their lines. Mangala pounced and was afforded ample room to squeeze his shot between Mannone and the near post from just outside the area.
Even Liege themselves seemed stunned at the early strike. But elation turned to ecstasy shortly afterwards when Gallas swept away the legs of Jovanovic just inside the area.
The Serb kept his cool to stroke home from the spot. It is fair that the home crowd didn't in celebrating the goal!
Arsenal were shell-shocked but, over the course of the next half-hour, gradually got some sort of game together. Eduardo had an effort blocked on the quarter-hour and Bendtner sent over a couple of dangerous low balls from the left. However Sinan Bolat was more caretaker than keeper.
Yet, as half time approached, there was more incisiveness in their work. Eventually the reward came. In the final minute of normal time Diaby powered forward, shrugged off his assailant and slipped a pass into the path of Bendtner. The Dane slid his shot through the legs of Bolat and into the far corner.
A bitter start, a better end. As the teams went off at the break, Arsenal had a lifeline and, just as importantly, some impetus.
The second half could have seen two goals in less time than it had taken in the first.
Dieudonne Mbokani found himself in space on the edge of the area in the opening seconds but his shot was blocked by Gael Clichy. Rosicky pinged a pin-point pass up the other end and only a perfectly-timed challenge from Mangala stopped Bendtner grabbing an equaliser.
Arsenal were much better this half and sending their hosts into retreat but Liege were still threatening on the break. In the 57th minute, Wilfried Dalmat stormed down the right and, under pressure, Eboue hacked his low cross away from under his own bar.
The visitors' pressure was not being translated into chances and, as the half wore on, this in itself gave Liege a little more confidence.
Wenger replaced Rosicky with Aaron Ramsey and the Welshman immediately tested Bolat. The manager was just about to make another change when Arsenal drew level.
In the 79th minute, Fabregas sent over a free-kick from the left. Eduardo flicked it on to Song at the far post. He nudged the ball back into the six-yard box where Vermaelen scrambled it home from close range. Replays suggested the Cameroonian was offside when Eduardo had nodded the ball on.
Suddenly Liege were all at sea themselves.
Eduardo might have grabbed a third almost immediately but Bolat made his first real save of the night. From the corner, Vermaelen's drive was booted off the line with the keeper stranded.
The third came in the 81st minute. Fabregas fired in a corner from the left and Eduardo muscled in front his marker to turn the ball home from five yards with his knee.
The 26-year-old kissed his knee by way of celebration.
Eduardo was clearly relieved to have put a tough week behind him while his team had left with a win that had seemed light years away after that sloppy, sloppy start.
- Vermaelen Goal!
- Eboue 80
- Clichy Yellow Card
- Rosicky 70
- Fabregas (C)
- Bendtner Goal!
- Eduardo 83 Goal!
- Sagna 80
- Wilshere 83
- Ramsey 70
- Mangala Goal!
- Camargo (C)
- Jovanovic 59 Goal!
- Witsel 84 Yellow Card
- Dalmat 82
- Goreux 82
- Nicaise 59 Yellow Card
- Traore 84