September 29, 2010 7 Comments
Cléo 33 pen; Arshavin 15, Chamakh 71, Squillaci 82
Arsenal maintained their 100% start to this season’s Champions League campaign, grinding out a workmanlike 3-1 win against Partizan Belgrade in a game which was not without its share of worrying moments, several of them self-inflicted.
Arsène Wenger rang the changes after Saturday’s disappointing loss to West Brom, bringing Lukasz Fabianski, Kieran Gibbs, Johan Djourou, Denilson, Tomáš Rosický and Jack Wilshere into the starting line-up.
The match in the Stadion FK Partizan kicked off with only three of the four floodlights operational, and early on Arsenal often looked like they were groping around blindly in the dark. Last-ditch interventions by Denilson, with a brilliant but desperate sliding tackle, and Fabianksi, saving with his legs after a soft back header from Sébastien Squillaci, prevented the hosts from taking the lead inside the first ten minutes.
The opening goal came very much against the run of play, but it was a beauty. Arshavin and Wilshere drove at the heart of the Partizan defence, with the young Englishman flicking a cheeky back-heel for the Russian to pounce on with a firm drive from 12 yards.
There then followed a sustained period of Arsenal dominance. Partizan keeper Vladimir Stojković, a loanee with Wigan last season, rushed off his line to smother one-on-ones with both Arshavin and Rosický, and even when Arshavin managed to beat him with a delicate chip Marko Jovanović raced back to clear off the line.
Arsenal appeared to be in total command until Denilson inexplicably handled Radosav Petrović‘s innocuous pass. Brazilian striker Cléo coolly slotted home the resultant penalty after sending Fabianski the wrong way. Rocked back by the equaliser, Arsenal’s dominance evaporated and the game drifted into stalemate until half-time.
However, the visitors set out for the second period with renewed ambition, as Partizan appeared content to sit back and forage on the counter-attack. It is always a dangerous tactic to employ against the Gunners, and Partizan paid the price when Jovanović clipped Marouane Chamakh as the Moroccan striker raced onto Arshavin’s defence-splitting pass. It was a soft penalty but a spot-kick nonetheless, and as the last man the defender was rightly dismissed. However, Arshavin’s attempt was blasted straight down the middle – his one lowlight in an effervescent performance – and Stojković saved with his legs to maintain parity.
Nonetheless, Arsenal gradually began to make their numerical advantage tell, dominating the ball to an even greater extent than they had before – they would finish with 64% of total possession – and pulling Partizan’s ten men all over the field. The hosts responded as best they could, throwing themselves into a series of physical challenges; Wilshere in particular will have woken up this morning knowing he had been in a battle.
Just when we were starting to wonder whether this might be one of those nights, as Arshavin’s deflected 70th-minute strike brought the finest save of the night from Stojković, Arsenal retook the lead. Rosický fizzed in a precise cross, and although Stojković tipped Chamakh’s initial header on to the crossbar, he could do nothing about the follow-up.
Squillaci headed in from substitute Samir Nasri‘s corner eight minutes from time, and although Partizan immediately won a penalty after a careless tackle by Gibbs which appeared to take place outside the area, Fabianski rendered it irrelevant with a fine save. On a night when he was relatively unoccupied, the Polish keeper had the kind of game which will silence his many doubters, at least temporarily, looking secure on crosses and producing a fine late reflex save to deny Ivica Iliev.
Although still a little shaky at the back – given Partizan’s limited attacking ambitions, the defensive screen provided by Denilson and Alex Song was breached too regularly for my liking – Arsenal battled hard, attacked with purpose and will feel suitably encouraged ahead of the trip to Chelsea. Arshavin, so often a source of frustration for fans with his economy of effort, was at the heart of much of Arsenal’s attacking work, and linked up well with Wilshere, who again impressed with his vision and awareness playing in the advanced role normally occupied by the injured Cesc Fàbregas. Chamakh put in a good shift and deserved his goal, and although Rosický was some way from his best, he worked hard all night and his cross for Chamakh’s goal underlined his class.
Wenger was pleased with the way his side had bounced back after last weekend’s dismal performance:
We had a lot of the ball and created a lot of chances. However, we could not kill the game off and then we were always under threat. They came back with the penalty – afterwards we needed to keep the pace high and when we got the second goal I thought we looked comfortable.
For us it was important to win straight away after a big disappointment against West Brom. It puts us in a good position confidence-wise. Sunday is a big, big game for us. I believe we will go there with a desire to do extremely well.
And he had this to say about the under-fire Fabianski:
Fabianski had a good game. We have seen the player tonight who we see in training. He had a faultless game. I know it is in him. He got it out in the game tonight and hopefully that will give him the needed belief and confidence. I am confident he will come out as a great keeper, I have always said that. We have to keep confidence in him and he needs to gain experience from games like this.
After last night’s win, Arsenal should secure early qualification for the knockout phase if they can gain four points from the upcoming double-header against Shakhtar Donetsk (on October 19th and November 3rd). But for now their focus returns to the Premier League. Improved though this performance was, the team will need another big step forward if they are to leave Chelsea with a similar result. Didier Drogba and friends will undoubtedly be more ruthless about capitalising on any defensive frailty than Partizan were last night. But it was a job well done, and we move on to Stamford Bridge on Sunday with our heads held high once again.
- Partizan Belgrade 1 Arsenal 3: match report (telegraph.co.uk)
- Arsenal’s Progress In Champions League Continues Unabated (aculturedleftfoot.wordpress.com)
- Fabianski display delights Wenger (news.bbc.co.uk)