Arsenal 4 AZ 1
More than ever this year, there has been a great deal of naval gazing about the predictability of Europe`s elite competition. Even I had begun to consider the group stage and its elitist seeding system a mere cash cow to be milked vigorously as the top eight sides are gifted their procession into the knock out rounds when the competition begins in earnest. Prior to yesterday evening`s match I was in the Arsenal Tavern watching Barcelona huff and puff to a 0-0 draw with Rubin Kazan- who amazingly have the Catalans in something of a headlock in the head to head stakes. Liverpool too look on the brink of Champions League extinction (they were this morning installed as favourites for the Europa Cup- has a team ever been made favourites for a competition they are not in?) Bordeaux have breezed through with two games to spare in a group containing Bayern Munchen and Juventus. I suspect this year`s surprises might be a happy accident (indeed, don`t be surprised to see Barca and even Liverpool squeeze through eventually). Platini will point to his new fangled seeding system for the Qualifying rounds which has given the supposed lesser lights a greater chance to shine in the tournament. Therefore, what was a very routine run out against an ordinary Alkmaar side should not be dismissed quite so out of hand. Arsene seems to have drummed the benefits of flat track bullying into his players this season (we`ve lost away to the two best sides we have played this season, but have wiped the floor with most other comers). The benefits of playing 4-3-3 are therein ensconced. Arsene has always been a manager keen to get his players to accentuate their strengths to the nth degree and not pay lip service to their weaknesses. It can be mildly frustrating that Henry, despite having an excellent leap, never utilised his heading ability or that Diaby still takes twenty seconds to release the ball or to see Arshavin scratching his bum in the opposition half when there`s an attack on his flank- but Wenger plays the percentages and encourages players to- as he puts it- play the game they love which gives them freedom to express themselves. The 4-3-3 will come undone at places like Stamford Bridge, but given our superior attacking strength, it will overcome most of the teams we play.
Arsene kept up his policy of playing Emmanuel Eboue at right back in the Champions League. Given that Sagna has clearly improved his crossing of late with three assists in two games (and it really ought to have been four but for van Persie`s late miss at Upton Park), you could argue that this has been a cute move from Wenger. Arsenal flexed their attacking instincts in the opening three minutes, Arshavin, Diaby and Nasri played a gorgeous triangle on the edge of the area, freeing van Persie on the edge of the area and he showed his flourishing confidence by letting fly with his right foot and his shot whistled just wide. Van Persie was given a chance to pull the trigger with his left most barrel a few minutes later after an errant back pass from Poulsen was collected by Romero. Van Persie`s indirect free kick from the six yard line was charged down by an AZ Maginot Line constructed between the posts. Arsenal were looking dominant without ever being truly penetrative when the opening goal arrived after 26 minutes. Samir Nasri moved the ball to Fabregas on the edge of the area. He shuffled into a yard of space and despatched a low shot which pathetically squirmed past Romero at the near post when it ought to have been a comfortable stop.
Cesc was in the mood to add to his burgeoning goal tally and went all Alan Smith on our asses a couple of minutes later. Arshavin released Kieran Gibbs on the left; he floated over a delightful cross which Fabregas nodded over on the far post. Without ever really needing to shift the gears, the Gunners were two up three minutes before half time. Arshavin received the ball from Diaby in between AZ`s defence and midfield and released a perfectly timed ball for Samir Nasri; he pirouetted inside Moreno before curling a low shot past the despairing left hand dive of Romero. Arsenal were gliding past their visitors with such ease, it made you wonder how on earth they had allowed AZ a draw a fortnight ago. There wasn`t so much a chasm in class as a Grand Canyon. Games that follow emphatic North London derby wins will always feel lacking in intensity, but this was a pure training exercise. Fabregas and Arshavin might as well have been given their own ball to play with for an hour and a half, any attempts to move the ball past them were met with- get this- a tough tackling Abou Diaby. On the rare occasions they managed to pass him, Alex Song was consumptive of any moves to attack. Half time and it had been men against boys.
Minutes into the second half, Arsenal`s gaping superiority was played out on green canvas again. Abou Diaby swooped in to steal the ball from the toes of Mendes da Silva on the half way line, he nudged the ball to Arshavin (that`s right, he won the ball, looked up and played it to someone in space as soon as he was able! Gasp!) Arshavin once again showed a Bergkamp-esque poise, releasing the ball at exactly the correct time for Fabregas, who had ushered himself into Arshavin`s primary position in the left channel (what did I tell you about fluidity children?) and the captain deceived the goalkeeper by opening out his body and looking towards the far corner, before bending the ball over the top of Romero`s rather daft looking dive. Fabregas is now Arsenal`s joint top scorer with eight goals from fourteen appearances this season. Together with his twelve assists, it`s difficult to believe that there is a more complete central midfield player in Europe right now. I often think his quality is taken for granted to the extent that he is too under rated- much as Pires was. Make no mistake, in Cesc, van Persie and Arshavin, Arsenal have three players that could well rival the famous triple entente of Vieira, Henry and Pires. Let`s hope there respective times at Arsenal are as decorated.
Despite being under deployed all evening, Almunia still had reason to stamp his authority on the evening. Almunia clearly has a presence that Mannone does not at his age. Knowing when to come off your line and collect is a seemingly simple skill, but one Mannone is nowhere near adept at- that puts the defence under pressure and the composure of the defence has been notable since Almunia`s redeployment. Martens nodded down a Dembele cross, Graziano Pelle was afforded time and space to bring the ball down and unleash a fierce left foot volley from close range which Almunia showed swift reactions to to palm it onto the underside of the bar. Kieran Gibbs nearly helped himself to his first senior goal cutting in from the left to attack Romero`s obvious weakness to low shots, but his effort scuttled just wide. But it was Harlem Globetrotters stuff for Arsenal`s fourth. Eduardo played an exquisite back heel on the half way line with two players attracted to him, freeing Arshavin on the right this time, the Russian once again released the pass, though it was a little beyond the onrushing Abou Diaby, he maintained composure to control the ball and steer it past Romero.
A mixture of refereeing sympathy and defensive immaturity gave AZ a consolation. Ramsey`s corner was clearly punched by Pelle- the most stonewall penalty area handball in the history of the world. Ever. But the officials took pity and allowed AZ to break; Jermain Lens motored into the space Kieran Gibbs really ought to have been occupying. Aaron Ramsey manfully tried to get back but instead of trying to hold Lens up and usher him away from goal, Ramsey showed a little immaturity by trying to buffet through him, Lens` tame shot was watched into the net by a stranded Almunia- a soft goal from his point of view and slightly neutralising his earlier good work. But the goal was little more than a footnote on the evening as Arsenal assured they were all but through, needing only to avoid a two goal defeat at home to Liege (or else a 4-3 reverse) to officially qualify. Qualification may have seemed a formality from the second the draw was made, but Liverpool, Bayern Munchen and Barcelona will all be envying our position this morning.LD.
TEAM: 1.ALMUNIA, 27.EBOUE, 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN, 28.GIBBS, 17.SONG, 4.FABREGAS© (16.Ramsey `67), 2.DIABY, 8.NASRI, 23.ARSHAVIN (7.Rosicky `75), 11.v.PERSIE (9.Eduardo `67). Unused: 3.Sagna, 6.Senderos, 18.Silvestre, 24.Mannone.