By Richard Clarke
Arsenal took an almighty stride towards qualification to the Champions League Knockout Stages with a fabulous 5-1 win over Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday night.
Alex Song, Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas, Jack Wilshere and Marouane Chamakh got the goals in a game that had been billed as Group H decider but turned out to be a cruise.
Shakhtar, who arrived on a run of seven straight wins, had endeavour early in each half but defensive frailties always undermined their ambition.
An omnipotent Arsenal plundered goals as and when they needed them. It was a pleasing night all-round.
Even Shakthar’s late consolation drew hearty applause. Eduardo half-volleyed home from close range and, as he had promised, did not celebrate the strike.
You could not have blamed him if he had, Shakhtar can take little else from this evening.
Arsenal have gathered nine points and 14 goals in their first three group games. They could secure top spot in Donetsk on November 3.
At this rate it is only a matter of time.
The main news pre-match was the return of Fabregas. The Arsenal captain had not been seen since injuring his hamstring in the act of scoring at Sunderland just over a month ago.
Wenger had spent last night mulling over the return of the Spanish midfielder. In the end, he decided against leaving him on the bench. However his inclusion left Abou Diaby among the substitutes.
Tomas Rosicky replaced Emmanuel Eboue numerically but actually played on the right. Samir Nasri took the Russian’s regular role on the left wing.
Before tonight, these two teams had taken six points out of six in Group H. And the first 15 minutes suggested both sides were facing higher standard opposition.
Shakhtar were as neat and tidy as their reputation had suggested. As a result, Arsenal lacked their usual incisiveness.
In fact they needed a bald-faced mistake to take the lead.
In the 18th minute, Nasri’s flashing cross was touched past the far post by the Shakhtar defence.
Sebastien Squillaci nodded on the corner and, under little pressure, keeper Andriy Pyatov dropped a regulation catch. Johan Djourou stabbed the ball from under him and Song flicked the ball over the line.
Arsenal’s 1-0 lead had been not so much stolen as smuggled.
In the 25th minute, they nearly registered a much more authentic strike. Rosicky sand-wedged a ball to Chamakh, whose nod down was leathered goalwards by Nasri. This time Pyatov made the save.
Rosicky had a half-shout for a penalty soon afterwards. Had that been given and converted, Shakhtar might have been sunk. The Ukrainians seemed to lose their nerve after conceding the goal. Mentally they were there for the taking but Arsenal did not take charge.
Four minutes before the break Henrik Mkhitaryan’s deflected shot looped over the bar. It caused Lukasz Fabianski a worrying moment as did the subsequent corner. But given that is noteworthy, in reality, Donetsk were offering little.
And, a minute or so later, they were 2-0 down. Song exchanged passes with Emmanuel Eboue on the right and sent a deflected cross into the middle. Nasri cushioned the ball past Darijo Srna to create space for himself and then blasted home. It was his sixth goal of the season in only his ninth game.
Shakhtar made one change at the break but it was Douglas Costa and not the one for which the Arsenal fans were calling – Eduardo.
In the opening seconds, Mkhitaryan’s penetrative throughball released Luiz Adriano but Fabianski stood his ground to make a fine save.
There seemed to be more purpose about the visitors in the second half. And were just about to add to their firepower with Eduardo when Arsenal got their third.
Nasri curled over a free-kick from the right and Adriano tussled Djourou to the floor. Fabregas’ penalty was unstoppable – high and into the top corner. He then revealed a T-shirt wishing his mother a Happy Birthday.
The goal was the captain’s last meaningful touch. He was brought off for Denilson.
As the Brazilian waited to come on he shared a brief hug with Eduardo. The Croatian replaced Adriano seconds later and was greeted with rapturous applause.
It lightened the mood of the home supporters but did nothing for the lethal ambition of the team they were supporting. In the 66th minute, Wilshere raced onto Chamakh’s touch, exchanged passes with Rosicky and lifted his shot over the advancing Pyatov.
Shakhtar were now shell-shocked. They had been punished punitively this evening and it was not over yet.
In the 69th minute, Nasri scooped a pass over the visiting defence to the unmarked Chamakh. The Moroccan was so clear he could not believe he was onside but replays proved that was the case.
He gathered his senses – and the ball – before slotting home his sixth goal of the season.
Arsenal were now in party mood. Substitute Theo Walcott, seeing his first action since August 28, tried to arrow one in the top corner.
Eight minutes from time, Shakthar grabbed a goal.
Jadson hooked a high ball into the area from the right wing and Eduardo beat Fabianski from close range. It was a quality finish, the type that had first attracted Wenger's attention back in 2006.
He kept his word and did not celebrate the goal. The Arsenal fans repaid respect with respect.
The strike also threw up a notable question – was the first player to score at Emirates with three different clubs?
Costa tried a curler at the end. But the game had long since been lost.
Eduardo took time out to applaud the fans at the final whistle. Again, they responded in kind.
His smile suggested he was happy to be ‘home’ even though his new side had been swept aside on the night.
- Fabregas 63 Goal!
- Song Goal!
- Nasri 72 Goal!
- Wilshere Goal!
- Chamakh 72 Goal!
- Walcott 72
- Denilson 63
- Arshavin 72
- Hubschman Yellow Card
- Gai 68
- Willian 45
- Adriano 63 Yellow Card
- Jadson 68
- Costa 45
- Eduardo 63 Goal!