Gunners grind out qualification
Is this to be the season when Arsenal get things done the hard way? A campaign in which, rather than their usual style of either blowing teams away or being blown out, they struggle through and achieve their aims via tests of endurance and nerve? They are, according to Arsene Wenger, in a "strong position", having qualified here, while topping the Premier League and facing a highly winnable League Cup semi-final.
Wenger presented the four fronts now open - the FA Cup begins next month - to Arsenal as "an exciting challenge" but it is difficult to disagree with his admission that there is "room for improvement". As with many Arsenal games so far this season, and especially of late, this was no breeze. However, for a team that is yet to convince, and with many question marks placed against them, they are in an enviable position. Monday gives them the chance to put five points between them and Manchester United while for the 11th consecutive season, Wenger leads them into the latter stages of the Champions League.
The conversion of a must-win game into an easy-win encounter was the aim here. Only victory could fully guarantee progress. In the end, events in the Ukraine made this a barely necessary grind, as Shakhtar Donetsk's despatching of Braga cast the Gunners into a trapdoor of the Champions League's elite. There is now a significant chance that one of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich may lie in wait in the last 16. To progress into the last eight, the hard way will have to be taken again. The only other potential opponents in Schalke barely offer great comfort either.
The Serbian visitors were seeking little more than their second Champions League goal of the group stage, reflection of wholly different horizons for a club that reached the 1966 final of the old European Cup. Yet a sense of edginess gripped the Gunners right from the early stages. They were not helped by a rather unfamiliar 4-4-2 formation, and yet another striking of the injury curse that has especially befallen their backline.
The luckless Kieran Gibbs had succumbed to what looked like serious injury when his studs caught in the turf, and though there was relief that he was able to play on for a while, his removal from the pitch in the 22nd minute made this yet another game in which the young hopeful has had a chance to stake a claim ended prematurely. "It is unbelievable," Wenger said of Gibbs' latest injury, an ankle sprain at best. "He is quite down, he's on crutches and I cannot tell you more."
Samir Nasri, Footballer of the Year-elect and looking it, was given a wide role, while the youthful brio of Jack Wilshere was confined to the bench as Arsene Wenger chose to field a strike partnership that almost looked a throw-back in these days of 4-3-3, 4-5-1 and 4-2-3-1. Plain old 4-4-2 looked its outdated self here, as a pairing of Marouane Chamakh and a slightly deeper lying Robin van Persie barely gelled.
Van Persie won the first-half penalty that allowed Arsenal hearts to flutter a little less, and converted it himself in the 30th minute. It allowed his team some freedom of expression and the attacks began to flow in more customary style. Prior to that, the new strike partnership had looked cumbersome. Both are used to playing as the more advanced in front of a packed midfield and the selection of two strikers allowed Partizan greater numbers in midfield. Since an ankle injury sustained over a year ago on international duty, Van Persie is yet to regain the touch that once made him his team's prime attacking weapon.
Nowadays, Chamakh looks the line-leader of choice, and the Moroccan would seem to have superior physiology on his side. This was Van Persie's first start since August and it looked it, with even the awarded penalty looking soft. He made the most of Marko Jovanovic's challenge. His spot-kick had luck on its side as Partizan keeper Vladimir Stojkovic guessed right but could not avert the left-foot shot from entering the net.
On the left wing, Andrei Arshavin, a winning contestant in last week's hotly disputed Zurich beauty contest, departed the scene with 23 minutes to play, his ineffectiveness causing some anger among Arsenal fans. This was no anti-Russian front; this was on account of a consistent lack of product. Arshavin may have joked in pre-match about his team's frailties but there was little cause for amusement when his team-mates conceded a fortuitous Partizan goal. Lone striker Cleo, carrying on in solitary fashion, pinged in a snap shot that clipped off Sebastien Squillaci and ballooned past Lukasz Fabianski in the 52nd minute.
Conversely, that served to add some much-needed atmosphere to a game previously lacking in audience participation. Though the crowd's tones were more hectoring than encouraging, Arsenal looked lifted by the challenge. Theo Walcott's arrival after coming on for Arshavin gave England a more minor victory over Russia when he supplied the goal that pushed Arsenal back ahead, when seizing on a mistake by Jovanovic.
Nasri's well-taken goal, repeating the form that has lessened the yearning and continued need for Cesc Fabregas, made it all academic. It is Nasri's name, to the tune of KC & the Sunshine Band's "Give It Up" that is now most sung from the Arsenal stadium rooftops. Perhaps he now will join the Barcelona wanted list. However, the difficulty for Arsenal did not end there as Bacary Sagna was red-carded when bringing down Aleksandar Lazevski as time ticked on and the Macedonian bore down on goal.
Sagna had prevented late worries but will now be missed in the first leg of the second round. "Very harsh," said Wenger, who was happy to accept this was a qualified success in more than one meaning of the phrase. February, and before that, next Friday's draw, will present new opportunities in this competition, though the hardest of tests may lie in wait.
"What I know is that we have a 50% potential of playing in Spain, and a 50% potential of playing a German team, and I don't know," said Wenger, with a glimmer of sarcasm before casting a glance to the one they all want to avoid. "Barcelona is a super favourite but we take what we get. We played them already last year. We will see."
MAN OF THE MATCH - Samir Nasri. He has had and will have better games this season, but this was another illustration of his current vein of high confidence and delivery of the goods. His jinking runs and attacking zeal were his team's most potent weapons on the night, and it is his new strength and power that most look to have made the difference to the Frenchman.
ARSENAL VERDICT: Wenger was not happy with his team's attacking play here, and his description of "low key" seemed apt. There was an element of experimentation in the strike force, and it did not pay off. One of Chamakh and Van Persie will start at Old Trafford, and the former has to be favoured.
PARTIZAN BELGRADE: A team that has lost every group-stage game, yet they did not look quite as bad as that record suggests. Their organisation in midfield and defence impressed Wenger and their hardy group of very vocal fans will have enjoyed the highlight of their first away goal.
SLEEPING BAG: Arsene Wenger's coat continues to be a thing of wonder. A puffa jacket that drapes midway down those lengthy legs, it betrays a certain influence of the hip-hop star on the 60-plus Alsatian. Its loose fit allows the manager to adopt that curious crouching position he uses in times of worry. It is yet to catch on in N5 but it surely will.