By Richard Clarke at the Stadion FK Partizan
Arsenal took a giant stride towards the Knockout Stages of the Champions League with a 3-1 win at Partizan Belgrade on Tuesday night.
After a sticky start, Arsène Wenger’s side seemed to have taken control when Jack Wilshere provided a wonderful assist for Andrey Arshavin to score in the 15th minute. However they were pegged back just after the half-hour when Denilson handled in the area and Cleo slotted home from the spot.
Arsenal should have regained the lead 10 minutes after the restart when Marouane Chamakh was hauled down by Marko Jovanovic. The defender was dismissed but Arshavin saw his penalty saved by Vladimir Stojkovic.
However, 19 minutes from time, Chamakh pounced to nod home after his own header had come back off the bar. And in the 83rd minute, Sebastien Squillaci grabbed his first Arsenal goal by steering a home a header from Samir Nasri’s cross.
The finale may have been much more nervy had Lukasz Fabianski not turned aside Cleo’s late penalty.
However, in truth, this was an Arsenal victory with something to spare.
A game of three penalties leaves Arsenal with six points out of six in Group H. They are tied with Shakhtar at the top. Braga and Partizan have yet to get off the mark
With Chelsea in mind, Wenger shuffled his side this evening. As a result the Gunners were not 100 per cent fluent or watertight but, in a difficult atmosphere, they did more than enough to deserve the victory.
If they do the same in similar circumstances at Stamford Bridge, then Arsenal’s season will be right back on track.
Before kick-off, Wenger made a whopping six changes from the side that had lost to West Brom on Saturday.
The headline alteration saw Fabianski take the gloves from the injured Manuel Almunia (elbow). Elsewhere, Kieran Gibbs replaced Gael Clichy on the left of the defence and Johan Djourou came in for Laurent Koscielny in the middle. It was the Swiss defender’s first Champions League appearance since he started against Manchester United at Emirates Stadium in the Semi-Final second leg on May 10, 2009.
Wilshere and Denilson were brought into central midfield while captain Tomas Rosicky was on the right. Nasri and Emmanuel Eboue dropped to the bench but Abou Diaby was out with a recurrence of the ankle injury he first collected against Bolton on September 11 but had tweaked against West Brom at the weekend.
The Stadion FK Partizan was the expected pot-boiler pre-game. The home fans took their seats early and sang very, very loudly. A number of partial power failures gave the prelude a sense of unease. But the game started in dim light then it gradually got much brighter.
The same could be said of Arsenal’s first half-hour. The visitors were under the cosh in the opening stages. In the eighth minute, Cleo broke clear on the left with Squillaci in pursuit. The Brazilian-born striker reached the corner of the six-yard area but dallied enough for the Frenchman to catch-up. Cleo tried to feed a ball back into the path of Nemanja Tomic but Denilson scuffed it away from his feet at the vital moment.
A minute later Pierre Boya stretched a toe onto the ball as Squillaci tried to shepherd a header back to Fabianski. Fortunately the keeper recovered.
In the 12th minute Cleo profited on a slip by Djourou and fired wastefully over the bar.
The Arsenal goal was receiving much more attention so Arshavin’s opener was somewhat of a surprise. But its quality was exquisite.
The Russian collected the ball in midfield and found Wilshere before racing into the area. The Englishman was surrounded and seemed to have lost control. However he backheeled the ball back into the path of Arshavin, who drilled it low past Vladimir Stojkovic.
The goal quelled Partizan’s early appetite for attack and suddenly Arsenal were on top.
Wilshere and Arshavin nearly combined for a second in the 24th minute but the Russian was denied by a fine save from Stojkovic.
In fact only the former Wigan keeper stopped Arsenal killing the game by the half-hour. Two minutes later he rushed out to deny Rosicky after Arshavin had prodded him through.
The Russian then clipped a shot over Stojkovic only for defender Jovanovic to hook the ball to safety.
Having been caught cold in the opening minutes, Arsenal suddenly seemed to be strolling.
And then they tripped up.
In the 33rd minute, the visitors half-cleared their lines and the ball fell to Radosav Petrovic on the left. His tossed a cross to the edge of the area and Denilson was adjudged to have handled. Cleo sent Fabianski the wrong way from the spot and, quite unexpectedly, a game that Arsenal seemed to be killing off was alive again.
Having got back on level terms, Partizan tried to press home their advantage. The visitors had been knocked off their stride by the equaliser but were happy enough to see off the half so they could regroup.
To be honest, Arsenal were still working their way back into the game when they were given the perfect opportunity to regain the lead in the 55th minute. Arshavin sent Chamakh clear through the middle and he was hauled down by Jovanovic just inside the area. The referee pointed to the spot and then gave a red card to the Partizan centre back.
Having seen Rosicky miss at Sunderland and with Nasri, who had converted twice at Tottenham, on the bench, Arshavin stepped up.
His effort had power but was straight at Stojkovic. The keeper saved with his legs.
It was another blow to Arsenal but they still had that numerical advantage and set about making it pay.
In the 67th minute, Wilshere wriggled clear from his marker and darted into the area. Only a perfectly-timed challenge from Mladan Krstajic stopped him going through on the keeper.
A couple of minutes later, Arshavin’s bobbling shot was plucked out of the air.
It seemed that Arsenal had found some fluency again – and they proved it in the 71st minute. Rosicky sent over a hanging cross from the right to Chamakh at the far post. The Moroccan planted his first header against the bar and reacted first to nod home the rebound.
It was a traditional English centre-forward’s goal. Albeit from a player of African descent who was raised in France.
With seven minutes left, Squillaci popped up at the near post to nod in a corner from substitute Samir Nasri. That seemed to be that.
However seconds later, Gibbs clipped Ivan Stevanovic on the right of the area and referee Wolfgang Stark awarded another spot-kick.
Cleo stepped up once more but this time Fabianski flung himself to his right to turn the ball around the post.
In injury time, the Pole made an even better stop from Ivica Iliev.
A satisfying night for Arsenal and a solid boost of confidence before Sunday’s massive match at Stamford Bridge.
- Squillaci Goal!
- Wilshere 73
- Arshavin 84 Goal!
- Chamakh 73 Goal!
- Clichy 84
- Nasri 73
- Vela 73
- Petrovic 68
- Tomic 58
- Jovanovic Red Card
- Cleo Goal!
- Ilic Yellow Card
- Savic 58
- Smiljanic 68