By Richard Clarke
Arsenal won Champions League Group H with something to spare after dismissing Standard Liege 2-0 at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night.
The home side bossed an eccentric first half that saw goals from Samir Nasri and Denilson but will be most remembered for the jaw-dropping five-chance melee that preceded them.
Arsène Wenger's side dictated the game from start to finish but, having obtained the required advantage, offered some benevolence after the break.
After taking 10 points from their opening four games, Arsenal were virtually through before kick-off anyway. This result just rubber-stamped their passports for the Knockout Stages.
At his pre-match press conference, Wenger had accepted his side were always on a hiding to nothing in this group. They were expected to cruise through comfortably and, in the end, they did.
But then, quiet efficiency is nearly always underrated in modern football. Just ask Liverpool.
Wenger made five changes from the side beaten at Sunderland on Saturday.
Denilson was restored to the side after 10 weeks out with a back problem. It was his 100th appearance for the Club.
Kieran Gibbs returned after recovering from a badly bruised foot. Carlos Vela made his first start of the season in the central attacking role while Andrey Arshavin came back on the left and Emmanuel Eboue did likewise at right back.
Bacary Sagna, Tomas Rosicky, Eduardo, Armand Traore dropped to the bench. Aaron Ramsey was left out all together.
The Liege fans took centre stage before kick-off. They had had little to shout about thus far in Group H and were facing elimination tonight. But the travelling support did not let that stop them.
Arsenal fans, on the other hand, arrived with a mixture of emotions; disappointment from the weekend and anticipation towards this Sunday. With qualification all-but assured this was seen as just another day at the Emirates Stadium office.
However there was nothing bureaucratic about the way their side began. In the opening minutes, Alex Song, Nasri and Cesc Fabregas all had presentable efforts on goal. In the 10th minute, the Frenchman spurned the opportunity to shot after popping up on the left side of the area but his cross found Vela. The Mexican cut inside but his shot was saved.
Arsenal were pressing and pressing. A goal seemed likely. It should have arrived five times in the 15th minute.
It all started when Fabregas took a corner...
- Arshavin's point-blank shot was saved
- Then Vela's collected the rebound and planted the ball against the post
- Then Gallas had two efforts blocked by the keeper
- And finally Vermaelen's vicious shot beat everyone, hit Arshavin on the line and flew wide
But then no more shocking than Dieudonne Mbokani juddering the post five minutes later. The Congolese striker darted inside Vermaelen and lasered an effort off on the angle of post and bar from the edge of the area. It was the first attack the visitors had mustered all night.
On the half-hour, Gallas nudged a header over the bar from a Fabregas cross. The Frenchman clashed heads with Arshavin in executing the chance. Both players needed lengthy treatment. The Russian had gash on the top of his head and Gallas had swollen eye worthy of a heavyweight boxer.
The home side had not yet returned to 11 men when they took the lead. Given the bizarre events so far, it was relatively mundane. Vermaelen punted the ball forward towards Nasri and Landry Mulemo, the covering defender, slipped as he tried to intercept. The Frenchman pounced then lifted his shot over the keeper and into the far corner of the net.
It was so nearly 2-0 a couple of minutes later. Nasri slipped a clever ball to Arshavin who drove a low shot inches past the keeper's left-hand post.
This was an open, attacking and wonderfully curious game. Five minutes from the break, Liege seemed to have won a clear penalty when Gallas clattered Reginal Goreux. Referee Konrad Plautz played on.
Fabregas nearly rubbed salt in the wound seconds later when he whistled a low drive across goal and beyond the far post.
Both sides seemed to be looking for the refuge of half-time now. However this peculiar game had one more twist. On the whistle, Gibbs tapped the ball to Denilson 25 yards out. He took a touch, looked up and thumped it. Keeper Sinan Bolat, so brilliant early on, could only parry the ball into his own net. Nevertheless it was a fine, fine strike.
Perhaps it was that goal which convinced Wenger to take off Gallas at the break. The job of qualification was nearly done and the Frenchman could be saved for Sunday. Mikael Silvestre came on.
Liege were now in an impossible position; chasing the game away from home against a side that seemed to be their superiors. They nearly grabbed a lifeline seven minutes into the second half when a free-kick from Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez found Axel Witsel eight yards out. The midfielder miskicked at the crucial moment and Almunia gathered.
Arsenal had clearly taken their foot of the gas but their engine was still ticking over. Vela got a glimpse of an opportunity but thrashed his shot horribly wide. Substitute Theo Walcott cracked an effort inches past the far post.
By the midway point of the second half, Wenger had made all his changes. The manager clearly thought that this particular Group H box had been ticked and therefore he did not want to over-exert his side.
As a result, Liege were allowed to have a go. With eight minutes left, Goreux cut inside and Gohi Bi Cyriac smashed a left-footed shot against the base of the post. His supplier then belted the rebound over the bar.
Carcela-Gonzalez clashed heads with Fabregas in the dying seconds and was sent off. That ended the Belgians' battling.
When the whistle went, Arsenal had only 10 men on the pitch as Gibbs had picked up an injury and hobbled off down the tunnel.
That was the only concern on a crushingly comfortable night at Emirates Stadium.
Sunday should be a stark contrast.
Referee: Konrad Plautz (Austria)
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.