By Richard Clarke
Nicklas Bendtner grabbed a timely hat-trick as Arsenal reached the Champions League Quarter-Finals by overwhelming Porto 5-0 at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night.
The Dane had been profligate against Burnley at the weekend but he hit the mark early on this evening and never looked back.
Andrey Arshavin set him up for goals on 10 and 25 minutes. That overturned Porto’s 2-1 advantage from the first leg, yet the visitors still had enough about them to ask serious questions of Arsenal at the start of the second half.
But, just past the hour, a superlative strike from Samir Nasri broke their hearts. Three minutes later, substitute Emmanuel Eboue stole a runaway fourth and Bendtner grabbed a personal third from the penalty spot in injury time.
This could have been a nervous night for Arsenal but, in the end, it was nothing of the sort.
They reached the last eight of the Champions League for the fourth time in five seasons with something to spare.
Wenger’s men are riding the crest of a winning wave right now – and this result will only help.
However bigger tests lie ahead.
The Frenchman made five changes from the side that had beaten Burnley on Saturday. Four of them seemed to be rotation - Eboue, Mikael Silvestre, Denilson and Theo Walcott for Bacary Sagna, Sol Campbell, Abou Diaby and Arshavin. The only new availability was Alex Song, who was fine for Europe despite his domestic ban. He replaced Denilson as the defensive midfielder.
To borrow a phrase from Sir Alex Ferguson, this was ‘squeaky bum time’ for Arsenal. That 2-1 defeat at Porto had left both sides with potential for progression so the tie began on a knife-edge.
Wenger’s side had been their own worst enemies in Portugal three weeks ago. Now they were back amongst friends they had to take advantage.
And that is exactly what they did in a comprehensive first half performance.
Arsenal were simply irresistible in the opening stages. They pinned Porto back in their own area and threw themselves into the act of finding the opening goal.
Nasri had an early effort blocked and, from Bacary Sagna’s swirling cross, Arshavin’s bullet header forced Helton to bat the ball beyond his own post.
Arsenal clearly fancied the job tonight and, on 10 minutes, they cashed their first pay cheque.
Almunia’s long clearance was nodded back to Nasri by Arshavin. The little Russian then turned on his heels and raced into the area to receive the Frenchman’s return pass. Just as Arshavin reached the ball so did keeper Helton and covering defender Nuno Coelho. Their collision saw the ball slither out to Bendtner, who gleefully stabbed home. It was just the tonic the Dane required.
It did his team no harm either.
After the euphoria of the goal had subsided, Helton was still receiving treatment. The Brazilian stopper had been accidentally clipped by Arshavin in his follow through.
Diaby fired over from a right wing corner as Arsenal started their search for an immediate second then, midway through the half, Arshavin’s low driven cross flew undisturbed across the face of the area.
By now, Porto were stirring. Hulk and Falcao had seen long-range shots smothered meanwhile, on another occasion, Silvestre Varela had escaped dangerously on the right of the area.
However if Arsenal had shot themselves in the foot at Estadio do Dragao three weeks ago, Porto’s aim was equally errant in the 25th minute.
There was nothing on when Diaby lost the ball on the left and Fucile seemed seeing it out for a throw. However at the last minute the midfielder changed his mind and swiveled a pass forward.
However he only found Arshavin. The Russian weaved a route past three defenders before cutting the ball back for the unmarked Bendtner to stab home.
In a tie of bizarre goals this one just about topped the lot!
Until now, Arshavin had been architect of Arsenal’s lead. But, 11 minutes before the break, he got his angles all wrong. Nasri sprinted through the Porto area to reach the byline. His cut back went through the legs of Rolando and found Arshavin who thumped his effort high over the bar.
Seven minutes from the whistle, Hulk robbed Clichy on the right thumped an angled shot into the chest of Almunia.
But although Porto knew they had to start pushing forward, their attacks were sporadic.
Just before the break Bendtner tried to curl home his hat-trick goal but Helton tipped the ball unconvincingly around the post. From the corner, the 31-year-old redeemed himself with a sharp, low stop from Diaby’s header.
In injury time, Nasri forced another decent save from Helton. The Porto keeper had been overworked in the opening half and Arsenal had just the advantage they needed.
The visitors tried to change the game after the break. They threw on striker Christian Rodriguez for defender Coelho and started to push forward.
It made a difference.
For the first time on the night, the visitors built up a head of steam. Although Song’s long shot forced a fumble from Helton, Falcao had already done the same thing to Almunia. Meanwhile Hulk was making hay down the left.
Arsenal were starting to get nervy. On the hour Rodriguez’s header was nudged into the hands of Almunia by Nasri, who was standing on the far post.
Three minutes later, the Frenchman would kill the tie.
When Diaby tapped a pass to Nasri on the right, the 22-year-old was faced with three defenders.
He decided to go through them. Bobbing and weaving he found a path between all three before planting a low drive just inside the far post.
It was perhaps the goal of the season.
Then, with Porto still reeling, Arsenal grabbed a fourth. The home side cleared a corner and Arshavin won the ball in midfield before sprinting straight at an undermanned visiting defence. The 28-year-old waited for Eboue to overtake him and then weighted his pass superbly. The Ivorian skipped past the keeper and put Arsenal into the last eight.
His work done, Arshavin was replaced by Walcott.
By now Porto were spent. The Englishman had a shot blocked and Sagna fired over. In injury time, Eboue was brought down and Bendtner stroked home from the spot.
It was the last kick of the game. Arsenal were through and the Dane was utterly redeemed.
- Almunia (C)
- Vermaelen Yellow Card
- Nasri 72 Goal!
- Rosicky 57
- Arshavin 76
- Bendtner Goal! Goal! Goal! Yellow Card
- Eboue 57 Goal!
- Denilson 72
- Walcott 76
- Fucile Yellow Card
- Bruno Alves (C)
- Ruben Micael 75
- Coelho 45
- Varela 76
- Falcao Yellow Card
- Guarin 75
- Rodriguez 45
- Gonzalez 76
- Miguel Lopes