By Richard Clarke
Arsenal cantered into the Knockout Stages of the Champions League with a 3-0 win over Sparta Prague at Highbury on Wednesday night.
The goals came from Thierry Henry midway through the first half and Robin Van Persie's brace in the final nine minutes. But the margin could have been even wider. You got the impression Arsenal could have killed off their opponents much earlier if they had wanted.
Although Group B in 2005/06 has not turned out to be the stiffest test for Arsène Wenger's side, they have done their job with ruthless efficiency. The minimum requirement is always to reach the Knockout Phase, something they have achieved in each of the last five seasons.
However Arsenal have never begun a Champions League campaign with four straight wins. This is now officially Arsenal's best start in the competition and only Ajax's late goals at Thun stopped them securing top spot after just four games.
Of course, no one is getting carried away. This is no indication of success in the latter stages but a comfortable early ride certainly does no one any harm.
Before kick-off, we knew Henry was going to start and Freddie Ljungberg (hamstring) was out. However we did not know Jens Lehmann would fall prey to a back problem and Manuel Almunia would be drafted in.
The other change smacked of rotation. Cesc Fabregas had been excellent in the second half at White Hart Lane but Mathieu Flamini and Gilberto retained their central midfield partnership. Robert Pires, who sparked the revival at Tottenham, started on the right while Jose Antonio Reyes was on the left.
The first half began in filthy weather and the rain continued to hammer down for most of the opening period. Not that it bothered Arsenal. They hit their stride early in the treacherous conditions and barely took a faltering step after that.
They should have been ahead in the 14th minute. Pires delightfully swapped passes with Bergkamp on the right of the area and the Dutchman lifted his shot over the keeper at the near post. Unfortunately his effort bounced back off the bar.
Arsenal were dominant and playing in the flowing style that has become their hallmark under Wenger; only the odd misplaced pass or overambitious move was stopping them going ahead.
However Almunia was forced into action after 18 minutes. Zdenek Pospech squared to Lukas Zelenka, who was ahead of Sol Campbell and one-on-one with the Spanish keeper. Almunia managed to thrust out a hand to sweep the ball clear from the striker's feet.
Still that chance was the exception, the rule seemed to be Arsenal in the ascendancy. They finally took the lead in the 24th minute.
Lauren, Bergkamp and Gilberto were all involved in the move but it was Reyes who provided the final pass for Henry 25 yards out. He wrapped his right foot around the ball and sent a superb curling shot into the far corner.
The French striker celebrated with Pires and then took a mock penalty in front of the South Stand. Remember the pair had shared that now infamous missed spot kick in the last game at Highbury.
A couple of minutes after the goal, Almunia blocked Martin Hasek's drive. But it was an isolated incident and Arsenal should have extended their lead before the break.
In the 33rd minute, Bergkamp sprinted clear and fed Reyes on the right. Like Henry, he attempted a curler into the far corner. This time keeper Jaromir Blazek dived full length to make a fine right-handed save.
Five minutes later, the Spaniard created space for himself and fired a low shot wide.
The rain abated after half time but Arsenal's pressure did not. Eight minutes in, Henry nearly curled in another goal, this time a free-kick from the left. The 28-year-old's wickedly swerving effort sent Blazek sprawling away to his right. However the ball rippled only the sidenetting, not the back of the net.
The striker continued to trouble the Sparta defence before he tired and was replaced by Van Persie. Within a couple of minutes the Dutchman has stung Blazek's hand with a rapid left-foot free-kick.
With 18 minutes left, Gael Clichy and Reyes broke at pace and Pires fired over the bar when he should have settled the tie. It was the Frenchman's last touch of the ball, he was replaced by Fabregas immediately afterwards.
Again Arsenal looked in total control but, again, Sparta conjured up a clear chance. In the 78th minute, Miroslav Slepicka fired over a cross from the left and Adam Petrous flicked a header inches over the bar.
However, Van Persie is increasingly becoming highly dangerous substitute. Nine minutes from time he expertly cut inside before driving his effort just inside Blazek's post. Five minutes later he swept home a cross from Emmanuel Eboue. However, inbetween those goals, Martin Petras hit the bar for Prague
Van Persie had a chance to complete an unlikely hat-trick and Flamini went close at the death.
But 3-0 was more than enough.
Referee: Alain Sars
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