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Magicians swagger to victory but back trouble could still derail dreams

IN THE three weeks since Falcao's impudent goal dictated that Arsenal would have to come from behind against Porto, a subtle change had taken place.

No longer was the Champions League their best chance -- and a long-odds one -- of a first trophy in five years. Suddenly, after three Premier League wins, England's title beckoned.

Their job was to banish such thoughts from their heads. But Porto made it difficult. They were so inviting to play against that Arsene Wenger's players might easily have taken them for Burnley in disguise. Not that Fucile, on this evidence, would get a game for Burnley. If the right-back was harshly punished by Nicklas Bendtner with the first goal, the second was a thoroughly deserved spanking for a ball carelessly played out to Russian playmaker Andrey Arshavin.

This pertained to the latest theory about Arsenal: that they are bullies on their own flat track, imperious in emphasising mastery over the mundane and therefore favoured, in terms of the remainder of the domestic season, by a programme featuring nine teams from whom they have already taken 23 points (and none of the other members of the customary top four).

That football has a habit of confounding such assumptions was underlined when William Gallas joined Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie on the casualty list. So could the residue of Wenger's squad continue to swagger?


When Arshavin is on form, they can hardly avoid it. The little magician must have known it would be a night of rich pickings when he not only made but won an aerial challenge for Manuel Almunia's long clearance. Seconds later a jubilant Bendtner was beginning to vindicate the faith of his manager, who reacted to Saturday's missed chances by praising his overall development.

And then, for the very best of Arshavin, we had only to wait. After receiving the ball from Fucile, he teased his way into a space from which Bendtner could clearly be seen. But Arshavin noticed that his colleague was offside and darted forward until level with him before laying on the goal; Porto's defence watched with a stationary respect that must have dismayed their coach, Jesualdo Ferreira.

The worry from Arsenal's point of view is their own defence. Thomas Vermaelen shows every sign of becoming synonymous, like Robert Pires and Gilberto Silva, with Wenger's eye for a big signing, but every minute Sol Campbell spends as deputy for Gallas will be watched with anxiety.

At times, with Porto probing, acutely aware that a goal would bring aggregate equality, Vermaelen was fully stretched in protecting Almunia. When Abou Diaby and Alexandre Song needed to keep the ball and be patient, they looked to the front; the absence of Fabregas was conspicuous, as is likely to be the case until his hamstring heals.

As Samir Nasri cleared off the line, the early stages seemed a distant memory. And then came that wonderful pair of goals, one the product of Nasri's individualism and the other a classic example of how a player of Arshavin's class can bring the best out of others, in this instance the rampaging Emmanuel Eboue.

Better teams than Porto -- and to the front of the mind now spring Tottenham Hotspur -- lie in wait, ready to mock the notion of a routine run-in at home. And yet European champions Barcelona could hardly have finished off Porto with more class than Arsenal. Let the rest of the season take them where it will.