By Richard Clarke
Cesc Fabregas scored twice as Arsenal all but ensured qualification to the Champions League Knockout Stages with a 4-1 victory over AZ Alkmaar on Wednesday night.
The Spaniard struck in the 26th and 53rd minutes in the most straightforward of wins. Inbetween Samir Nasri grabbed his first goal since breaking his leg in pre-season and, in the 71st minute, Abou Diaby stroked home a wonderfully-worked fourth.
This is the result Arsenal should have got in Holland. Back then they had been wasteful but tonight they were rigorous, ruthless and utterly irresistible. Even a late strike by substitute Jeremain Lens did nothing to affect the feeling of assurance this evening.
The failure of Olympiacos to gain anything at Standard Liege mean both those sides can still mathematically overhaul Arsenal.
But 10 points is normally enough to go through and, if they maintain this level of performance, then Arsenal will surely rubber-stamp qualification and the Group H title in the final two games.
Tougher challenges lie ahead in this competition.
Wenger made three changes from the side that had swept aside Spurs so brusquely at the weekend.
The headline was the return of Nasri to the frontline. The midfielder's only run-out since his broken leg had come in the Carling Cup a week ago. He replaced Nicklas Bendtner on the right, the Dane's groin injury was likely to keep him out for a month.
Gael Clichy's back would sideline him out for at least the same period, therefore you could assume that the elevation of Kieran Gibbs this evening was the start of a decent run in the side.
The final change was Emmanuel Eboue for Bacary Sagna. That was a straight swap and continued Wenger's policy of sharing the right back role in Europe.
Arsenal came into this game with room to breathe at the top of Group H. This was the first of two successive home ties - one win and they would probably qualify for the Knockout Stages, two wins and they would go through as group winners. Their fate was entirely in their own hands.
They also had the little matter of that North London derby win as a buoyancy aid.
It took only three minutes for Arsenal to hit their weekend groove. Andrey Arshavin, Diaby and Nasri weaved intricate patterns in midfield before releasing Robin van Persie on the right. His angled drive beat the desperate dive of Sergio Romero and flashed past the far post.
The home side were in a perky mood, probing their opponents at every opportunity. In the 13th minute, Romero collected what, in the referee's view, had been a back-pass. Almost the entire AZ side lined-up in the goal-mouth and inevitably blocked Van Persie's effort.
The visitors had shown some adventure in the opening stages but, by the time we had reached the midpoint of the first half, they had gone back into their shell.
That is not to say the opening goal was entirely expected. Arsenal had control without real penetration and Fabregas' strike was, in many ways, a self-inflicted wound.
There seemed little danger in the 26th minute when Nasri found Fabregas on the edge of the area. The Spaniard extracted a little space from David Mendes da Silva, his marker, and let fly.
The shot was military-medium in every respect and should not have troubled an Argentinean international keeper.
However Mendes put out only the weakest of hands and the ball trickled into the net.
As in Alkmaar a fortnight ago, Arsenal had their lead and were happy to hit cruise control immediately. Fabregas nodded over from Gibbs' deep cross just past the half-hour.
Moussa Dembele beat the left back to fire wide at the other end but, if anything, AZ possessed even less cutting edge tonight than they had shown in Holland.
And this time Arsenal seemed determined to make them pay.
Two minutes before the break, Arshavin tucked a pass into the path of Nasri. The Frenchman weaved round Hector Moreno and slotted a shot past Romero.
The midfield wiped himself down in celebration. Perhaps he was washing away the disappointment of the first few months of the season.
Eight minutes after the restart it was 3-0. Diaby picked AZ's pocket in midfield and fed Arshavin. The Russian, clever as ever, nudged a pass into the path of Fabregas, who was racing down the left-hand channel. The Spaniard had the simplest task of slipping home his eighth goal of the season.
There seemed no way back for the visitors but three minutes later they should have snatched themselves an unlikely lifeline.
Maartens Marten nodded the ball down for Graziano Pelle on the edge of the six-yard area. The Italian had time to steady himself and wrap his foot firmly around the ball. Somehow Manuel Almunia diverted the ball onto the bar from point-blank range. Stunning.
You sensed AZ were flexing what muscles they had. Martens and Brett Holman both saw efforts fly over bar but there was little to trouble Arsenal this evening.
To fully illustrate that, Wenger brought off Fabregas and Van Persie for Aaron Ramsey and Eduardo.
The latter would make an immediate impact. Arsenal broke quickly from the back and the Croatian's expansive backheel sent Arshavin scampering clear. He squared to Diaby, who took a touch then stroked home an exquisite fourth.
Before the goal, Gibbs went close, after it Ramsey fired straight at Romero. By that time, Wenger had taken off another of his key players - Arshavin. He clearly felt the night's work had been done.
In fairness to AZ, they kept coming at Arsenal. Almunia claimed a dangerous cross from the feet of Holman and, with seven minutes left, Dutch champions grabbed a goal.
The home crowd were still claiming a penalty for handball against Pelle when Lens broke clear, wriggled away from Ramsey and fired home from the edge of the area.
The goal was disappointment to Arsenal but nothing more.
This game had been a stroll.
- Fabregas (C) 67 Goal! Goal!
- Diaby Goal!
- Arshavin 75
- van Persie 67
- Nasri Goal!
- Ramsey 67
- Rosicky 75
- Eduardo 67
- Sergio Romero
- Hector Moreno
- Mendes da Silva 70
- Schaars (C)
- Dembele 58
- Niklas Moisander
- Simon Poulsen 64
- Graziano Pelle
- Brett Holman
- Joey Didulica
- Gill Swerts
- Sebastien Pocognoli 64
- Wernbloom 70
- Jeremain Lens 58 Goal!
- Nick van der Velden
- Ari Yellow Card