Walcott rescues Arsenal
PARTIZAN bel 1
Supersub sets up place in last 16 as defensive flaws are exposed again
Theo Walcott came in from the cold last night, rising from the bench to give Arsenal the urgency they craved.
Being held by the whipping boys of Group H midway through the second half, after Robin van Persie and Cleo had traded goals, Arsenal were grateful to Walcott for a neat finish which settled the nerves of a team and stadium. Samir Nasri added a third, another finish to add to his glittering collection.
In confirming the runners-up spot behind Shakhtar Donetsk, Arsenal know that far more exacting opponents lurk in the December 17 draw. Arsene Wenger's side could face Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich.
If there was relief at progressing, as Braga could have nipped in, the result was clouded by mishaps to the full-backs: Kieran Gibbs injured his ankle while Bacary Sagna was sent off for denying Aleksandar Lazarevski a clear goalscoring opportunity late on.
Wenger had sprung a surprise, inserting Van Persie behind Marouane Chamakh, a move that paid dividends when the Dutchman won and converted a penalty. Whatever the successful tweak up front, Arsenal's formation was familiar, 4-2-3-1, although Denilson replaced Jack Wilshere alongside Alex Song in the engine room.
Out wide, Andrei Arshavin and Samir Nasri sought to stretch a Partizan side who had lost all their group ties. Arshavin backed up his words about Arsenal needing to improve defensively by tracking back, almost pointedly, early on.
Over on the right, Nasri was too busy linking up with Bacara Sagna, making good ground down the right. After a quick-fire link-up between the pair, Nasri nudged the ball into the path of Van Persie, whose left-footed shot flew wide.
It was a rare moment of promise in an anodyne first period before Van Persie's goal. Arsenal seemed to lack a sense of urgency, perhaps sensing the weak nature of the opposition, perhaps inhibited by the cold.
Such was Nasri's reputation that the Frenchman was double-marked, tempering the hosts' cutting edge. Arsenal's focus was also seemingly distracted by the sight of Gibbs turning his right ankle, departing on a stretcher, limping back on but then finally leaving the fray, a forlorn, lame figure. With Gael Clichy rested, Emmanuel Eboue came on at left-back.
A poor game was enlivened when Van Persie struck after 20 minutes. He began the move, sliding a pass through to Song on the edge of the area and gliding into the box. Faced by Mladen Krstajic, Song flicked the ball up and it caught the Partizan captain and continued to Van Persie. As he stepped away from goal into space, Van Persie was caught by Marko Jovanovic, the Serbian centre-back.
It was the gentlest of contacts, still enough to knock Van Persie off his stride. As he fell to the ground, a few protestations fell from Partizan lips when Paolo Tagliavento pointed to the spot. Van Persie made quick, clinical work of the penalty, driving it past Vladimir Stojkovic.
Arsenal fans loved it, waking them from their earlier, icy slumbers. With the Emirates far from full, those who had braved the cold were looking to be entertained, to be warmed up, to see signs of real understanding between Van Persie and Chamakh.
Van Persie did cut into the box just before the break, soon slipping the ball to his fellow striker but Partizan reformed the barricades.
It was largely disappointing fare. More amusement was provided by the additional assistant referees from Italy wearing thermal leggings. After the Portuguese officials at Old Trafford on Tuesday, the Champions League was showing Men In Tights 2. Another football cover-up.
The overly relaxed nature of Arsenal's display continued at the break with Wenger's substitutes indulging in a gentle game of keepie-uppies.
The malaise spread into the defence, Arsenal being caught out when Cleo let fly after 52 minutes. The ball clipped Sebastien Squillaci and looped in. Suddenly a few nerves knotted in Arsenal stomachs.
Suddenly a few thoughts turned to events at Shaktar Donetsk where third-placed Braga were playing.
Arsenal had to step up a gear. Some waves of frustration swept through the crowd, particularly when Arshavin lost possession.
The Russian drew increasing flurries of criticism and was soon withdrawn. Much to the Emirates' delight, Walcott raced on and soon earned a free-kick when baulked by Krstajic. Van Persie connected sweetly enough, the ball clearing the Partizan wall but not Stojkovic, who tipped it over.
Still Arsenal pressed, Song lifting a shot wide. Having started so imperiously in Group H, Arsenal were now fighting hard in the closing stages of the final tie.
Walcott's arrival was clearly worrying Partizan and Arsenal duly took the lead after 73 minutes. When Sagna crossed from the right, Partizan failed to clear properly and there was Walcott, sending a crisp right-footed volley past Stojkovic.
After Walcott settled Arsenal, they took total control. When Song drove through the middle, showing touch, balance and determination, Partizan melted. Song found Nasri, who hinted at a return pass before placing the ball elegantly past Stojkovic.
Wenger has once again helped develop a world-class talent from the promising midfielder signed from Marseille during July 2008. However, the Arsenal manager feels Nasri's first target must be collective achievement.
"We are in the middle of the season now and I will be happy for him if he becomes Player of the Year -- but what is the most important for me is that the club wins," said Wenger.
"The consequence if the club wins is that the players have a chance to win. I believe the priority is not to win individual awards -- the most important thing is that the players focus on making their club win.
"Samir Nasri is an intelligent player and understands he plays where he can help the team the most. He has become more efficient and is maturing.
"Nasri is only 23 years old and at that age you develop. When Thierry Henry came here he was 23 already and still developed a lot so that means there is a lot more to come from Nasri, Fabregas and all these players, so they are not players who are at the end of their improvement."
Bigger challenges lie ahead. (© Daily Telegraph, London)