By Richard Clarke
Arsenal only need to avoid defeat in Porto on Matchday Six in order to reach the Knockout Stages of the Champions League.
For much of tonight’s game with Hamburg, last season’s finalists seemed likely to leave themselves no margin for error in Portugal on December 6.
They trailed to Raphael van der Vaart’s dipping long-distance strike after only four minutes and, despite constant pressure, the home side’s only response came from Robin van Persie immediately after the break.
But, with only seven minutes remaining, Emmanuel Eboue strode up the right and fired in a low shot from an acute angle. Hamburg keeper Stefan Wachter could only help the ball into the net. Then, in the final minute of normal time, Theo Walcott found Julio Baptista nodded home his first goal in Arsenal colours.
This result, combined with Porto’s 2-0 win in Moscow, means Arsenal now top Group G. A victory from Arsène Wenger’s side in the final round of matches will mean they stay there but a draw will be sufficient to put them through.
However they must travel to Portgual without Thierry Henry. The Arsenal striker was booked just afterVan Persie’s equaliser. It was his third yellow card of the Champions League campaign and therefore he is suspended
Before kick-off, Wenger chose to restore Freddie Ljungberg to his line-up for the first time in seven weeks. The Swede had been hampered by a calf injury and then sickness since his last appearance at Charlton on September 30. Baptista made way. At the back, Philippe Senderos replaced William Gallas, who had picked up a thigh injury in the final seconds of training on Monday.
Gilberto was back in the squad after returning to Brazil for family reasons. However he only made the bench as Mathieu Flamini retained his place. Henry came back into the side in place of Emmanuel Adebayor.
Porto’s victory in Moscow had placed even greater emphasis on this game - if that were possible. The last thing Arsenal needed to do was concede an early goal and invite another visiting side to sit back and defend a lead.
However that is precisely what happened.
After four minutes, Arsenal failed to clear the ball in midfield and it eventually fell to Van der Vaart 25 yards out. He looked up and arrowed a curling right-foot shot into the top corner of the net. It was reminiscent of the super effort Tomas Rosicky had scored at the AOL Arena when the teams had met on Matchday One.
The Arsenal reaction was swift. Stung by the early goal, they swarmed forward. Eboue started to ping in crosses from the right, Fabregas looked to pull the midfield strings.
As ever, possession and creating chances were no problem. Putting them in was a different matter. Sometimes it was an issue of millimetres.
For example, in the 14th minute, Hleb and Fabregas combined for the Belarus midfielder to conjure some space in a crowded area. His rising shot was firm but bounced down off the bar and the ball was cleared. It could so nearly have come down over the line or to an Arsenal player. Given the trend in recent home games you feared it might be one of those nights.
Five minutes later the craning Henry just failed to reach a precise cross to the far post by Fabregas. By now Arsenal were pushing back Hamburg with the consistency.
The German side's main outlet was quick breaks through Medhi Mahdavikia. After Van Persie had nodded wide from Clichy’s deep cross, the Iranian made a typical forage forward and worried Lehmann with a shot from distance.
In the 35th minute Wachter flapped at a corner from Fabregas and the ball fell to Van Persie at the far post. His goalbound shot was blocked by the mess of the bodies in the area. Penalty area pinball ensued for a few seconds before the chance was cleared.
A couple of minutes later the Dutchman shaved the angle of post and bar with a rocket of a free-kick from 30 yards. Again Arsenal were on top at home, again they looked like scoring but again, as half time approached, they were trailing,
On the whistle, the dangerous Mahdavikia was substituted. It came a few minutes after he had been fouled by Hleb.
Just after the restart, Henry bent a free-kick high into the sidenetting. Then, in the 51st minute, Arsenal finally broke through the heart of the Hamburg defence for the first time. And they converted the chance.
Fabregas sent Van Persie clear in the right-hand channel and the Dutchman slotted the ball low past Wachter. In the pandemonium that followed Henry was booked.
Hamburg might have restored their lead almost immediately when Thimothee Atouba broke down the left and his cross was knocked back to Mario Fillinger just outside the area. He drilled his shot wide. It was a waste.
Adebayor replaced Van Persie with 21 minutes left then, after Henry’s snapshot had been saved, Walcott came on for Ljungberg. Wenger was rotating his attackers to keep fresh up front in the final stages.
A long-range shot from Fabregas touched Van der Vaart on route and bounced off the bar. At the other end, Senderos got enough on a shot from Danijel Ljuboja to divert the ball wide.
Desperation had just about turned to resignation by the time Eboue found space up the right and fired in an optimistic effort. Wachter will be disappointed with his part in the goal.
In the final minute of normal time, Walcott’s incisive run down the right stretched the Hamburg defence and his pinpoint cross picked out Baptista at the far post. The Brazilian powered home a header into the unguarded net.
The comeback was complete.
Referee: Claus Bo Larsen
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