By Richard Clarke
Arsenal blitzed Braga 6-0 on the opening night of Champions League Group H on Wednesday.
Cesc Fabregas opened the Emirates Stadium floodgates in the ninth minute when he stroked home from the penalty spot after Marouane Chamakh had been felled.
The Spaniard then provided an artistic assist for Andrey Arshavin to net the second on the half-hour. Four minutes later Chamakh combined with Jack Wilshere to make it 3-0.
Fabregas headed home the fourth – his second – just after the interval and only a goal-line clearance prevented the skipper completing the first hat-trick of his Arsenal career a few minutes later.
Arshavin set up substitute Carlos Vela for a cute finish midway through the second half. Six minutes from time the Mexican netted again from an unselfish assist by Fabregas.
If that reads like a procession of Fabregas-inspired Arsenal goals then that is just what it was.
Braga looked like the Champions League debutants they were. Arsenal had complete and utter control yet they barely broke out into a meaningful sweat.
Wenger’s men have reached the last 16 of this competition for the last 10 years and, though there is a long way to go, they just might make it 11 with something to spare this time.
The manager made three changes from the side that had beaten Bolton at the weekend.
His first-choice full backs, Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy returned at the expense of Emmanuel Eboue and Kieran Gibbs.
Sandwiched between them were Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny, the nascent all-French partnership that had performed so admirably at centre back on Saturday.
The final change saw their compatriot, Samir Nasri, come into the side so Tomas Rosicky dropped to the bench.
This was a voyage into the unknown for Braga and coach Domingos Paciencia sprang a surprise by leaving Lima on the bench. The Brazilian striker had scored a crucial hat-trick in the qualifying round against Sevilla.
At his pre-match press conference, Wenger had vowed to exploit Braga’s Champions League inexperience this evening and, in the opening stages, the visitors were clearly nervous.
Fabregas appeared to be felled by Paulo Cesar’s panicky challenge on the edge of the area in the fourth minute but referee Alain Hamer waved play on. Shortly afterwards Wilshere clipped a shot just wide not knowing he been flagged offside.
Up to this point, Arsenal had not been at their best but third gear was good enough to pin back Braga.
And in the ninth minute, the visitors finally fell behind.
Fabregas quickly computed that Chamakh had escaped in the left-hand channel and found him with and a penetrative pass. The Moroccan shaped to swoop inside the keeper Felipe but then went the other way. The Arsenal striker was swept off his feet and Fabregas converted the penalty.
Shortly afterwards, the captain chested the ball down and Wilshere’s point-blank shot cannoned back off Felipe.
It seemed a little too easy for Arsenal and, perhaps as a result, they failed to capitalise on their superiority immediately.
Cesar’s deflected shot was well-held by Almunia and, with a little more composure, Braga may have been more of a threat.
However Arsenal were still much the more likely side to score – all they had to do was prove it.
Then, in the 30th minute, they did.
Again the architect was Fabregas. Displaying effortless balance and guile, he weaved past a couple of Braga defenders before cushioning a pass to Arshavin on the left of the area.
The Russian rifled home a low shot just inside the near post. It was his third goal of the season.
Five minutes later it was 3-0.
Wilshere collected the ball on the right and tapped a short cross-field pass to Arshavin before racing to the edge of the area for the return.
The Russian’s chip was chested down by Chamakh to Wilshere, who then backheeled the Moroccan into a crevice of space in a crowded area. He tucked away a trickling shot beyond Felipe and into the corner.
Barring some sort of calamity, this game was won.
Eight minutes after the break even that proviso was pretty much extinguished. Arshavin clipped a cross to the far post and Fabregas, entirely unmarked, guided home a header.
It was simple, simple football.
Three minutes later, the Spaniard should have registered the first treble of his Arsenal career when he went clear. However the captain’s shot was touched into the air by Felipe and Moises raced in to hack the ball away.
No matter. At this point, Arsenal were as troublesome to the Braga defence as they wanted to be. Stepping on the gas when they felt the pace dropping too low.
Just past the hour, Wenger withdrew Song and Chamakh for Denilson and Carlos Vela. It was the act of a satisfied man.
Seconds later, Arshavin drilled a low cross-shot against the far post. In the 67th minute, the Russian cleverly fed Vela, who clipped the ball over Felipe in typical fashion.
Six minutes from time, the 21-year completed the scoring by tucking home a shot after Fabregas eschewed a half-chance of a hat-trick to set him up.
Despite the scoreline, this was not ultra-elegant Arsenal, it was the more emphatic and efficient version.
But they had done everything asked of them tonight – and more.
- Sagna Yellow Card
- Fabregas (C) Goal! Goal!
- Song 63
- Arshavin 69 Goal!
- Chamakh 63 Goal!
- Eboue 69
- Denilson 63
- Vela 63 Goal! Goal!
- Felipe Yellow Card
- Rodriguez Yellow Card
- Viana 55
- Matheus 60
- Cesar 70
- Vandinho (C)
- Mossoro 55
- Barbosa 70
- Lima 60