By Nik Brumsack at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal kept their hopes of Champions League progression alive with a convincing 3-0 victory over Dinamo Zagreb on Tuesday night.
On a chilly night at Emirates Stadium, Arsène Wenger’s side initially had to display patience against their deep-lying opponents.
It took a superb goal to make the breakthrough after half an hour - no fewer than six players involved in a sweeping counter-attack finished by Mesut Ozil’s header.
The outstanding Alexis Sanchez doubled the lead soon after, guiding home Nacho Monreal’s low cross, before making the game safe after half-time with a composed finish.
This was a fine Arsenal performance, and these three points could still prove vital after Bayern Munich comfortably beat Olympiacos at Allianz Arena. As things stand, Wenger’s men will need to win in Piraeus by two clear goals or a score of 3-2 or higher on matchday six if they are to reach the last 16.
On the evidence of this performance, they have every chance of doing just that.
SETTING THE SCENE
Saturday’s defeat at West Bromwich Albion was marred further by injuries to Francis Coquelin and Mikel Arteta.
The manager had spoken of Mathieu Flamini “having the engine required” to fill the holding midfield gap, so it was no surprise to see the Frenchman vacate the gap left by Coquelin's absence.
Flamini had previous against Zagreb - he scored the deciding goal in Arsenal’s first win at Emirates Stadium, a 2-1 success over the Croatian side in August 2006.
Elsewhere, Joel Campbell came in for Kieran Gibbs and there was a place on the bench for Aaron Ramsey too - the midfielder returning to the squad after recovering from a hamstring injury.
This was Arsenal’s 50th Champions League match at the Emirates but Wenger’s side came into it knowing they would have to win here and hope Bayern Munich won against Olympiacos to have any chance of adding to that number this season.
It took Wenger’s side some time to get going against their disciplined opponents. In fact, aside from Santi Cazorla and Hector Bellerin half-chances, the Gunners offered little going forward in the opening stages.
There was, however, good news from Allianz Arena, where Douglas Costa, Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller had given Bayern an early three-goal lead.
Slowly, the pressure was starting to build back in N5. First, Olivier Giroud failed to connect with Monreal’s enticing left-wing cross, then Bellerin raced into the box before seeing his eventual effort blocked.
Zagreb had defended stoutly for the first half hour or so. But when they tried to launch an attack of their own, they were punished by a classic Arsenal counter.
After the Gunners had regained possession just outside their penalty, no fewer than five players were involved in the early stages of an intricate move that took Wenger’s side into the Zagreb half. Flamini eventually fed Alexis down the left and, after charging forward, the Chilean sent over a precise cross for Ozil to direct a diving header past the previously untested Eduardo.
Arsenal were in control and quickly doubled their advantage, when Leonardo Sigali’s pass was intercepted by Monreal on the edge of the area. The full back advanced into the box before squaring for Alexis to sweep home.
It could have been three soon after. Ozil - probably the first half’s standout player - wriggled his way past a series of challenges but, after working a sight at goal, saw his powerful low shot deflected off target by Eduardo. The goalkeeper was required to make another fine save from Ozil just before the break, diving to his right to keep the German’s placed effort out.
The half-time break had done little to quash Arsenal’s momentum and Eduardo was again called upon just 90 seconds after the restart, palming Cazorla’s well-hit shot wide before getting a hand to Giroud’s header from the resulting corner.
Another quick break almost yielded a third goal before the hour. Ozil fed Bellerin but, with both Giroud and Alexis unmarked and haring through on goal, the Spaniard’s cross was blocked behind.
Campbell was next to go close, sending a speculative volley off target and then seeing an inviting centre cleared just in front of Ozil.
With Arsenal firmly in control, Wenger reintroduced Ramsey after a five-week absence midway through the second half. Giroud was the man to make way, with Alexis moving to the central striking role.
The change paid instant dividends.
Campbell - enjoying an encouraging evening - darted in off the right flank and found Alexis with a superb reverse pass. The Chilean did the rest, rounding Eduardo and stroking the ball into the empty net.
Zagreb threatened to pull one back but were denied by the fine reflexes of Cech, the goalkeeper springing to his right to divert the ball wide after Laurent Koscielny’s clearance had hit Flamini.
At the other end, Alexis was continuing to dazzle. He looked set to complete his hat-trick after 77 minutes but, having sumptuously controlled Ramsey’s pass and cut inside Jeremy Taravel, he saw a strong-looking appeal for a penalty waved away when seemingly brought down by Eduardo.
Alexis then turned provider as Arsenal finished strongly, lifting a delightful pass over the top for Ozil, whose flicked header rolled just wide of the target.
The pair had combined particularly well on an evening that provided renewed optimism ahead of what will now be a decisive match at Olympiacos on December 9.
Referee: Viktor Kassai
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