By Richard Clarke
Arsenal secured their best ever start in any European competition with a 1-0 win against FC Thun at the Stade de Suiss this evening.
The all-important goal came from Robert Pires’ penalty two minutes from time. It was harsh on a brave Thun outfit who played almost an hour with 10 men after Armand Deumi was dismissed.
Still, as Arsène Wenger said in the build-up to this game, it was important for Arsenal to maintain their momentum despite booking their place in the last 16 last month.
"You win whenever you can," according to the manager. His side did just that, ensuring top spot Group B as a result, and have now racked up five straight victories in the Champions League this term. Bertie Mee’s Arsenal won their first four games in the European Cup of 1971-72, a feat no Highbury side had matched let alone superseded until now.
Arsenal went into this game in a relaxed frame of mind. They had picked up their first away win in the Premiership at Wigan over the weekend and, of course, secured a place in the last 16 of the Champions League against Sparta Prague on Matchday Four. The task now was the win Group B with a game to spare.
Wenger did make changes given the situation, admitting that Jens Lehmann (back) and Gilberto (groin) probably could have played. Kolo Toure was not injured at all, merely rested after playing two games for the Ivory Coast last week.
One of the beneficiaries was his compatriot Emmanuel Eboue, who slotted in at right back. Another African youngster, 17-year-old central midfielder Alexandre Song, was handed only his second start since signing on loan from Bastia. In addition, Philippe Senderos, Jose Antonio Reyes and Mathieu Flamini were brought in, Robert Pires, Lauren and Cesc Fabregas dropped to the bench.
It was a bitterly cold night in the Stade de Suisse and, in the first half, the football rarely got above the lukewarm.
Arsenal failed to settle in the early stages and Thun held the early impetus. However Ljubo Milicevic’s fourth minute pot shot into Almunia’s chest was as close they got in the opening exchanges.
In the 19th minute, Arsenal had their first chance and it should have seen them go ahead. Reyes fired a quick free-kick to Van Persie in space on the right. He picked his spot with a sidefoot shot but keeper Eldin Jakupovic saved low to his right and his parry fell just beyond Henry’s reach.
At the other end, Adriano’s deflected shot looped narrowly wide of the Almunia’s post. The Spanish keeper was sufficiently worried to hurl himself to his right just in case.
Reyes responded by cracking a free-kick inches over the bar in the 31st minute.
Arsenal were denied a penalty soon afterwards when Van Persie was hauled back by Armand Deumi in the area. Referee Lucilio Batista waved play on.
The Portuguese official had an altogether easier decision three minutes later. Ljungberg’s first-time flick sent Van Persie clear and Deumi clipped his heels just as he was about to shoot. The Cameroonian defender got a straight red card, Arsenal got a free-kick which Van Persie rifled just over the bar.
The home crowd were angry at the decision but the heat from the terraces did nothing to warm up the game before half time.
Five minutes after the break, Thun thought they had gone ahead but Nelson Ferreira was clearly offside when he turned in Mauro Lustranelli’s deflected shot. The latter went close three minutes later but Senderos, a colleague in the Swiss national side, blocked his effort at the near post. Song injured his leg in the melee that followed that chance. After treatment, he tried to carry on but limped off just before the hour.
The 10 men were starting enjoy more of the possession and chances. Silvan Aegerter forced Almunia to block brave at the near post. From the resulting corner, Selver Hodzic powered a header just over the bar.
In the 62nd minute Arsenal conjured up their first opportunity of the second period. Henry almost repeated his free-kick from Wigan at the weekend. However Jakupovic made a sprawling save.
The unlucky Ferreira thought he had scored again three minutes later. His free-kick from the left trickled across a crowded area and somehow crept in at the far post. However by the time it hit the net the assistant referee had raised his flag, presumably for offside.
The game was finally starting to thaw. A minute later Henry outpaced Alen Orman and slid his shot past the keeper - and the far post too.
In a bid for that fifth straight win, Wenger was making changes - Lauren for Cygan, Robert Pires for Henry. It did little to change the game.
Everyone seemed to be settling for a goalless draw before Hodzic hauled down Van Persie and Pires scored from the spot.
The goal came exactly a month after his previous penalty effort against Manchester City.
This time it was decisive.
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