By Richard Clarke at Steaua Stadium
Robin van Persie secured Arsenal’s ninth straight win with the only goal at Steaua Bucharest on Tuesday night.
The Dutchman hammered home his fifth goal of the season - and his second winner in four days — in the 76th minute to decide a fraught and frantic affair in the Romanian capital.
Arsenal thought they had halted Steaua’s sparky display just before half-time when Gael Clichy’s deflected ball appeared to cross the line despite the best efforts of keeper Robinson Zapata. Replays suggested the referee was right to rule it out.
However, as the game went on, Arsenal got stronger and it was no surprise to see the Dutchman rifle home a clever cutback from Emmanuel Adebayor after good work by Alex Hleb. It was the least the visitors deserved after another dominant, if not free-flowing, display.
On the eve of this game, Arsène Wenger had suggested his side would need 10 points to qualify from Champions League Group H.
After just two of the six games that task is 60 per cent completed.
Before kick-off, the manager had five players facing fitness tests - Robin van Persie (ankle), Alex Hleb (knee), Emmanuel Adebayor (thigh), Mathieu Flamini (knee) and Abou Diaby (ankle).
In the end only the last of those failed to start the game. If even he made the bench. Emmanuel Eboue came in on the right and Hleb, who had been stretchered off at West Ham on Saturday, was switched to the left.
Jens Lehmann (elbow), Willam Gallas (groin), Alex Song (calf), Tomas Rosicky (hamstring) and Eduardo (hamstring) were still on the treatment table.
Steaua had lost their manager since their defeat to Slavia Prague on Matchday One. Gheorghe Hagi was one of Romania’s greatest players and had masterminded Galatasaray’s victory over Wenger’s Arsenal in the Uefa Cup Final of 2000.
Perhaps his unpopular dismissal was the reason half of the 28,000 seats in the Steaua Stadium were empty this evening.
However what the home fans lacked in numbers they made up for in passion. And they nearly had something to shout about in the sixth minute. Valentin Badea, who had already drifted a header over the bar, ghosted in at the far post to nod home a right-wing free-kick by Benal Nicolita. Replays confirmed that referee Terje Hauge was right to rule it offside.
Arsenal should have provided the perfect riposte. They flew up the other end, Van Persie got to the byline and scuttled a low ball across the area. Hleb collected and rolled the ball back into the area to Fabregas six yards out. Inexplicably, Fabregas screwed his shot over the bar.
Steaua were belying their reputation of a side hit by a double whammy - injury problems and internal strife. Nicolae Dica flashed a low, long-range drive beyond the diving Almunia’s left hand and the post in the 20th minute. Just before the half-hour Nicolita nearly stole in before the keeper collected Clichy’s back header.
Seconds later, Van Persie’s clever touch sent Adebayor clear in the left-hand channel but the Togolese striker chose to square the ball into a penalty area over-populated with Steaua shirts when a shot on goal was much the better option. However it was Arsenal were starting to find the measure of their hosts
Ovidu Petre fired over for Steaua but in the 35th minute Fabregas and Hleb played a one-two in the area only for the latter’s drive to be blocked on the edge of the six-yard box.
Five minutes before the break. Arsenal thought they had gone ahead. Clichy had ample time to cross from the left but his effort cannoned off Petre Marin. It wrong-footed keeper Robinson Zapata who did well to re-adjust and clutch the ball on the line. His momentum slid the Columbian over it and the ball went with him. Replays suggested the keeper hauled the ball back before its entirety had crossed.
Then, as half time approached, Flamini then forced Zapata into another sharp save at his near post.
As the whistle blew there was a sense that Arsenal were starting to turn the screw.
They nearly got their reward 10 minutes after break. Romeo Surdu crudely hauled down Helb on the left, Fabregas swung the free-kick into the area and, although the leaping Adebayor got the merest touch, Robinson batted the ball clear at full stretch.
However, almost immediately, Arsenal had let off themselves. Almunia rushed out of his area the head the ball clear. However it fell to the feet of Adrian Negra whose lob sailed over the Spanish keeper and had to be nodded away by Toure, who had taken up sentry duty on his own line.
Hleb’s trickery continued to cause Steaua problems on the left but often his work lacked accuracy in the final ball.
After Van Persie had hooked over from Adebayor’s fine cross, the Belarus fired over the bar. It was an indication that Arsenal were, once again, going to finish strongly.
However in the 70th minute, Nicolita’s through-ball sent substitute Victoras Iacob clear. Arsenal looked for an offside flag. It never came. Fortunately for them the gangly striker snatched at his chance and guided his shot wastefully over the bar.
The extent of its wastefulness would be shown in the 76th minute. Hleb fed Adeabyor, who bulldozered his way to the byline. His cutback evaded Fabregas but not Van Persie hammered a left foot shot high into the net.
The goal killed Steaua’s spirit. In the dying minutes, Fabregas tested Zapata from range and Adebayor hoiked an effort over the bar.
This victory was hardly 90 when, to borrow the manager’s phrase, life was beautiful. But it was pretty enough and certainly showed the efficiency of a side who are going places.
Referee: Terje Hauge
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