By Richard Clarke at the Maksimir
Before this trickiest of European trips, Arsène Wenger was setting his sights at an achievable level. "We will try to win there but above all we just want not to damage our chances to qualify," he said. "In two weeks we will be in much better shape than now."
He need not have worried. Arsenal would appear to have one foot in the Champions League group stages after winning 3-0 at Dinamo Zagreb in the third qualification round first leg on Tuesday night.
Francesc Fabregas struck twice to celebrate his 100th appearance for the Club. That brace was sandwiched around a superb finish from Robin van Persie.
All the goals came in the second half just as Arsenal seemed to be running out of attacking ideas. Shorn of nine players and baring only five of the 11 who started the Champions League Final 12 weeks ago, they struggled to find their rhythm in the first half. However they kept their resolve and took the chances that came their way.
Barring a freak result at Emirates Stadium in the second leg on August 23, Arsenal are in the Champions League group stages for the ninth season in succession
The omission of Jose Antonio Reyes from the starting line-up caused more than a ripple of interest in the press box before kick-off. The Spanish striker had been linked with a move to Real Madrid in the build up to this game and, if the newspapers were to be believed, the Bernabeu side did not want him cup-tied in Europe. Debutant Tomas Rosicky took up Reyes' normal role on the left flank with Justin Hoyte preferred to Mathieu Flamini directly behind him at full back.
Those were the only two changes from the 3-0 victory at AZ Alkmaar last Friday. That was the final game of a rushed pre-season campaign. Wenger had bemoaned his luck that Arsenal's first ever foray into the qualifications stages of the Champions League had come directly after a World Cup. It has cost him Thierry Henry, Jens Lehmann, Ashley Cole and Theo Walcott, who were not match-fit. Freddie Ljungberg (ankle), Gael Clichy (foot), Philippe Senderos (shoulder), Abou Diaby (ankle) and Lauren (knee) had injuries.
The massed Blue ranks of the fanatical Dinamo support were in position at the Maksimir an hour before kick-off. They boomed out their songs with non-stop intensity and, just as they game started, unfurled a banner the length of one end imploring their team to exceed their achievement in 1967 - winning the Fairs Cup. Three years after that Arsenal would lift the same trophy - their first European prize. Their purisuit of the Continent's top honour would begin at one of its most intense venues.
The opening was breathless and open. Van Persie wasted an excellent free-kick position by smashing the ball high over the bar. A minute later Araujo Doe Santos found a yard of space on the left and crossed for Luka Modric to hook his shot just wide of the near post. In the 16th minute, Van Persie's dipping shot was parried at full length by the scurrying Ivan Turina.
The visitors were starting to play with the greater authority as Adebayor's rasping drive demonstrated but Dinamo were breaking with pace when the opportunity arose. Two minutes before the Togolese striker whistled his rising shot past the post, Modric had darted into the area and prodded a shot just wide. Then Toure poked the ball away from Jasmin Agic as the substitute was looking to shoot with his first touch after replacing Davor Vigrinev.
Each side exchanged pot-shot and seven minutes before the interval Modric, Zagreb's biggest threat, controlled a lofted pass from the left and rifled a shot inches wide.
But by now the game's early edge had worn away. Both sides went into half time with much to ponder.
Four minutes after the break Marijan Buijat chipped a cross into the area and, although Agic timed his run into the area to perfection, his header was woeful. It was a bad, bad miss and Dinamo would be made to pay for it.
In the 63rd minute, Hleb pumped the ball forward to Van Persie who touched it on to Fabregas on the right and the 19-year-old cracked home a cross shot. The Arsenal players celebrated as if they knew it was an important goal, away strikes in Europe always are. But, given the circumstances, this was crucial.
Two minutes later, the tie was in Arsenal's control. Hleb's lofted pass sent Van Persie racing clear. The Dutchman held off his marker and steered a left foot shot past Turina's groping left hand and into the far corner of the net.
Zagreb tried to respond immediately. Eduardo sprinted onto a punt forward and had a two-yard start on Djourou as the pair left the centre circle. By the time the Brazilian had entered shooting range he had been dispossessed by the improving Swiss defender. Excellent work.
In the 79th minute, Fabregas grabbed his second and Arsenal's third. It was a superb individual strike that saw him ride two tackles and crash home another cross-shot into the far corner.
Van Persie nearly added another in injury time but his free-kick flew way over the bar.
Referee: Kyros Vassaras
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.