By Richard Clarke
Arsenal took their place in the last 16 of the Champions League for the 11th straight season thanks to a 3-1 win over Partizan Belgrade on Wednesday.
Arsène Wenger’s side only needed a win to secure safe passage but it turned out to be a rather nervous night against the bottom side in Group H.
In fact, they could only breathe easily when Samir Nasri fired home the third 13 minutes from time.
Robin van Persie gave Arsenal the lead on the half-hour from the penalty spot but they failed to kick-on from there. Cleo’s 52nd-minute equaliser was hardly on the cards but it was always a danger.
Theo Walcott came off the bench to fire the home side back into the lead in the 73rd minute.
After Nasri’s goal, Arsenal should have cruised home but this was a not a fluent night at Emirates.
In the final stages, Bacary Sagna was sent off for a last-man foul on Aleksandar Lazevski.
Shakthar's win against Braga mean they have won Group H. That could present Arsenal with a problem in the draw on December 17.
But this was a night when Wenger’s side simply had to get through.
And they did.
The manager made three changes from the side that had squeezed past Fulham on Saturday. The most noteworthy was Van Persie, who came straight in as captain. It was only the Dutchman’s third start of the season and, interestingly, he operated ‘in the hole’ behind Marouane Chamakh.
Elsewhere, Denilson replaced Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs came in for Gael Clichy who had gone down with sickness.
It was mighty cold at Emirates Stadium this evening. Much had changed – including the season – since Arsenal had hit 11 goals in those massive wins over Shakhtar and Braga.
Defeats in the corresponding away games had left them needing to match the result of the Portuguese team in Ukraine to qualify. Braga were unlikely to win and Arsenal seemed a shoo-in against a side that were trying to avoid becoming only the 11th team to achieve zero points in a Champions League group.
It should have been straightforward for Arsenal but there was the potential of a nerve-jangling night.
And the first half-hour did not go to plan.
Although the home side were on top territorially, they created little. The closest they came was when Nasri tried to feed Van Persie at the near post.
Meanwhile the pacy Cleo was sitting on the shoulders of the Arsenal centre backs chasing long balls over the top and waiting for a mistake.
Then, in the 14th minute Gibbs turned his ankle in midfield. He tried to soldier on but only lasted 10 minutes. Emmanuel Eboue came on. But the right-sided defender was covering at left back and the move did nothing for Arsenal’s balance.
However, on the half-hour, Arsenal were thrown a bone.
Alex Song flicked Van Persie into space in the area and a rash challenge from Marko Jovanovic brought him down.
The Dutchman fired home from the spot. It was his first goal since the last game of last season.
Naturally the goal was a lift. Eboue’s quick feet took him past two defenders on the left and his probing cross was hacked over his own bar by Mladen Krstajic.
But they could not continue in that vein. Arsenal’s first 45 minutes this evening had been edgy and disjointed.
The opening minutes of the second half were better. Keeper Vladimir Stojkovic denied Chamakh and then Denilson's cross was deflected to Nasri, who thumped his shot high over the bar.
It seemed that Arsenal were finally getting going.
Then Partizan equalised.
The visitors worked the ball in from the right to Cleo just outside the area. He let fly and the ball took a crucial deflection off Squillaci to beat Fabianski.
It was only the second goal the Serbian side had scored in Group H – and that had been a penalty against Arsenal in Belgrade.
At this point, Braga were still drawing at Shakhtar so Wenger’s men were still through. But they seemed determined to take it to the wire.
Sagna’s cross drifted just beyond Van Persie at the far post and there was a glimpse of an opportunity when Stojkovic dropped a cross under pressure from Song. But they were only half-chances.
Midway through the half, Wenger made a change. Andrey Arshavin came off and Theo Walcott replaced him.
Arsenal were now building up some sort of momentum. When the substitute was blocked on the edge of the area, Van Persie’s free-kick was acrobatically tipped over the bar by Stojkovic. From the resulting corner Song curled an effort wide.
Arsenal were getting closer and they would soon make the breakthrough. In the 73rd minute, Sagna’s cross was nodded out straight to Walcott by Aleksandar Krstajic. The England international chested down the ball and fired into the far corner.
The relief was palpable and six minutes later the win was secure. Song danced through a couple of challenges and, after passing to Nasri, looked for the return. The Frenchman, however, dragged the ball back and fired low into the corner.
At the same time, over in Donetsk, Shakthar were taking the lead.
That killed off any chance of top spot. But, in reality, Arsenal still had a job to do here.
Five minutes from time, Sagna brought down Lazevski on the edge of the area. The right back was the last man and, unfortunately, had to go. Fabianski made a fine save from the free-kick from Radosav Petrovic.
It was a tough end to a tough night. But, despite it all, Arsenal are through.
Referee: Paolo Tagliavento (Italy)
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