By Richard Clarke in Prague
Arsenal booked their place in the Knockout Stages of the Champions League with a 0-0 draw at Slavia Prague on Wednesday night.
But while Arsène Wenger’s side had taken control of Group H with three wins, 11 goals and a trio of decent performances, they ensured their passage out of it with a turgid display in the Czech capital.
They were not helped by eight changes, wet and windy conditions plus the sky-high footballing standards they have set themselves in recent weeks.
But, for once, Arsenal failed to fire; barely registering a chance worthy of the name throughout the game. Slavia, who had been humbled 7-0 at Emirates Stadium a fortnight ago, were not much better. Their best chance came in the 77th minute when Manuel Almunia rushed out to deny the lively Zdenek Senkerik.
Still, an away draw in Europe is never to be sniffed at and Wenger will take positives from this result. Namely, the point, the clean-sheet, the assurance of going on in the competition, the experience given to some who played and the rest afforded to those who did not.
But tonight — and perhaps for one night only — the entertainers failed to entertain.
In his pre-match press conference, Wenger had said that he’d shuffle his side after the intensity of those massive Premier League games with Liverpool and Manchester United over the past 10 days.
In fact there were eight changes from the side that had started against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side on Saturday. Four were on the bench and four had not travelled at all.
Admittedly, minor injuries had kept Kolo Toure (calf) and Tomas Rosicky (groin) back in London but Cesc Fabregas and Alex Hleb were omitted out of choice.
Meanwhile Emmanuel Adebayor, Bacary Sagna, Mathieu Flamini and Emmanuel Eboue were substitutes, with presumably the idea being not to use them unless absolutely necessary.
The changes meant that Alex Song came in at centre back with Lassana Diarra on the right of the defence. Denilson and Gilberto were paired in central midfield with Theo Walcott on the right. Surprisingly, Eduardo and Nicklas Bendtner did not reprise their strike force at Sheffield United a week earlier. In fact the Croatian started on the left with Abou Diaby lending support to the Dane through the middle.
However with eight of this side having started at Bramall Lane last Wednesday there was a certain Carling Cup feel to this side.
The fixture had been billed as Wenger’s 100th Champions League tie, a figure made up of 93 games for Arsenal and seven for Monaco. But that statistic does not include qualifying games. The 58-year-old has played eight of those — four for each side — so, in the minds of most people, this was Wenger’s 108th game in the competition. A more notable landmark will come in the first leg of the Knockout Stages — a game assured by tonight’s result of course - when Wenger reaches a century of Champions League ties for Arsenal.
It was chilly night in the Czech Republic and all those changes made the visitors’ start no more than tepid. In fairness, Bendtner troubled the home defence a number of times while Gael Clichy and Eduardo linked well on the left flank.
However the nearest either side came to scoring in the opening 15 minutes was when Daniel Pudil lofted over a corner from the right and the unmarked Mickael Taveres steered his header high over the bar.
Just after the half-hour the French midfielder ended a sweeping Slavia move with a shot from distance. It was easily blocked.
Given the fare Arsenal’s entertainers usually dole out, the effort was barely note-worthy however the visitors had been searching in vain for cohesion throughout the first half-hour.
Despite Arsenal’s neat approach work, perhaps Slavia were edging the game. Certainly they produced the best chance of game by far when, in the 36th minute, Senkerik swivelled to fire in a rising shot that Almunia helped over the bar.
The final act of the first half saw Taveres clip in a cute ball for the same player to nod over wastefully. Almunia admonished his defence for giving the 26-year-old striker so much space. However it would not have counted as the assistant referee had raised his flag for offside.
The heavens opened at half time but — despite Wenger pushing Eduardo further forward — the floodgates did not follow suit.
Five minutes in, Slavia had a shout for a penalty when Diarra appeared to clip the heels of Senkerik as he tried to reach a low cross from the right. Referee Bertrand Layec waved play on.
A minute later, Bendtner’s shot was charged down but soon after the game reverted to type - slow and labourious with neither side looking like breaking the deadlock.
David Hubacek hacked a wild effort over the bar just after the hour. By way of response Daiby weaved into the area but failed to find Eduardo at the vital moment.
Thirteen minutes from time, a long ball from the right caught the Arsenal defence napping. Senkerik raced into the area but Almunia roared off his line to bat the ball away. It was the best chance of the match by some way.
Adebayor then replaced Bendtner and the Togolese striker’s first touch help set a chance for Gilberto. Unfortunately the Brazilian could only slice the ball over the bar.
With five minutes left, his compatriot Denilson gave away a foul on the edge and David Kalivoda fired in a free-kick that deflected just past the far post.
At the full time whistle, the home crowd roared and, as it Emirates Stadium, the Slavia side ran to their supporters.
Arguably both sides got want they wanted tonight. Slavia achieved redemption and Arsenal qualification.
But the game will not live long in the memory.
Referee: Bertrand Layec
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