By Richard Clarke
Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over Steaua Bucharest on Wednesday night was not enough to secure them top spot in Champions League Group H. Arsène Wenger’s side could now face one of Europe’s major names in the draw for the last 16.
A point in their last two European games had left the London outfit playing catch-up on leaders Sevilla. The equation this evening was to win themselves and hope the Spaniards slipped up at Slavia Prague.
It looked good for over an hour. Goals from Abou Diaby and Nicklas Bendtner allowed Arsenal to move into cruise control. Meanwhile Robin van Persie looked excellent in his first start for two months.
However just after Dorel Zaharia had headed Steaua back into the game after 69 minutes at Emirates, Luis Fabiano gave Sevilla the advantage in the Czech capital. Freddie Kanoute added another two minutes later and Daniel completed the victory just before time. Though Arsenal held on to their win amid Steaua pressure, they were forced to settle for second place.
It was a disappointment but not a big one. The main job of Group H was achieved two games ago when Arsenal secured their place in the Knockout Stages. Their opponents will be decided on December 21.
But while Arsenal may face a major European force in the draw, anyone taking on Wenger’s side will know they have precisely the same problem.
The manager had made it apparent that there would be changes in his starting XI for Matchday Six. However the extent was a little surprising. We knew Jens Lehmann would play his first Arsenal game since August 19. The immediate return of Van Persie and Diaby was a little more surprising. Alex Song and Denilson were paired in central midfield, Philippe Senderos came in behind with Armand Traore at left back.
To illustrate the switch around, all seven substitutes were full internationals.
Wenger’s thinking was clear. Pack the side with enough quality to win the game but keep an insurance policy on the bench.
Emirates Stadium provided an almost eerie backdrop at kick-off this evening. Travel disruption meant the ground was under-populated when the teams walked out and a touch of winter mist only added to the atmosphere.
However Arsenal were far from unsettled. Wenger’s side were in control from the first whistle and never looked ruffled from the moment they took an early lead.
After two minutes, Van Persie sent an exquisite through-ball into the right-hand channel. Walcott raced on to it but pulled his shot inches past the post. A couple of minutes later the 18-year-old collected the ball 10 yards outside the area, weaved past a pair of half-hearted challenges before thudding a shot over the bar.
The England winger was also involved in the opener after eight minutes. He spread the ball wide to Sagna on the right. The Frenchman’s low, curling cross into the area was controlled with one touch of Diaby’s long right leg. His second planted a shot across Robinson Zapata and into the far corner of the net.
It was starting to become one-way traffic. In the 12th minute Diaby nearly grabbed his second. His deflected drive from just inside the area looked destined for the top corner again before Zapata threw himself to his left to spectacularly turn the ball aside.
Steaua were trying to pressurise but it seemed that picking up one point from their first five Group H has dented their confidence. Their best chance of the half came on the quarter-hour when Nicolae Dica fed Adrian Neaga on the right but Traore timed his sliding tackle to perfection.
Van Persie saw a long-range drive deflected over as Arsenal kicked-on once more but it was Walcott who was really catching the eye. Before the half-hour the winger had escaped a couple of times in the right-hand channel. His crosses floated dangerously across goal however, on both occasions, no-one was on-hand to convert.
But Arsenal were relentless. Van Persie curled an effort wide then Traore’s marauding run down the left ended with a neat ball towards Bendtner at the near post. Only desperate Steaua defending prevented a goal.
The Dane did not have long to wait. Three minutes before half time Song found Van Persie on the edge of the area. The Dutchman’s tantalising twist and perceptive pass gave Bendtner a little space in the area. He hurdled one challenge and then planted a low shot into the far corner. A cool finish on a chilly night.
Arsenal began the second half with a certain strut. There was a sense of confidence and control in everything they did. Van Persie’s fizzed a free-kick through a crowded area and narrowly wide of the far post. Then, just before the hour, Zapata roared out of his goal to deny Bendtner as he raced clear.
Van Persie made way for Eduardo with 25 minutes left. Almost immediately, Steaua grabbed a goal. Substitute Romeo Surdu whipped a hopeful cross in the area and Zaharia steered a header beyond Lehmann and into the far corner. It was a shock and against the run of play but it ignited the visiting team and their fans.
Lassana Diarra and Emmanuel Eboue came on. The Ivorian’s first act was to hurry back as Steaua broke forward and clear Surdu’s driven cross over this own bar.
Bendtner nearly forced a third when Zapata spilled his shot from distance. But, at the other end, Ovidiu Petre sent a swerving long-range effort inches past Lehmann’s left-hand post with a few minutes left.
Walcott and Eduardo went clear in the final minutes but Zapata stood firm. Arsenal deserved to hold on to their win tonight and, in most groups, 13 points would enough for top spot.
Just not this time.
Referee: Yuri Baskakov
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