Arsenal 7 (Fabregas 5, 58, Hubacek og 24, Walcott 41, 55, Hleb 51, Bendtner 89) Slavia Prague 0
You can tell a lot about a team, and a player, by their facial expressions just before and just after scoring goals. And last night’s stunning performance was a demonstration of just that.
In only the fifth minute, Hleb tricked two defenders by the left corner flag before playing the right pass, inside to Fabregas, who, taking advantage of a defensive slip, stepped inside and curled a beauty into the corner.
But watch Cesc’s face. Last season, he was bouncing around after each goal he scored at the end of the season. Understandable, given the drought he’d been through, but it was indicative of the relief and perhaps surprise he felt whenever his shots hit the back of the net. Now, the story is entirely different. He knew he was going to score, picked his spot, and wasn’t at all surprised when the net bulged. His businesslike reaction, very much ‘excellent, now let’s get on with the rest of the game’ summed it up. He has matured, and his composure in front of goal is spot on.
And when you were watching the match, and saw what he was about to do, how many of you doubted the outcome?
The second goal wasn’t long in coming, a corner coming across from the right and evading everyone before Hleb hit a tame first time shot which was deflected in by Hubacek. Credit to the Belarussian, his willingness to take the shot with his first touch maintained the panic that had been created by the set piece – a couple of touches would’ve given the defence time to recover.
By half time it was 3-0. Theo Walcott, given a rare start after his explosive exploits as a substitute, had been quietly making space around the hard working Adebayor up front, and chased down a tricky, and pointless back pass from their left back. The keeper made a complete hash of clearing it, presenting Walcott with a chance, and he duly obliged, rounding him and slotting coolly into the net for his first home goal. Again, it was the composure with which the chance was taken that impressed the most.
Seconds later, the keeper nearly made another fatal error – Eboue delightfully flicking the ball over a defender before lashing a remarkable shot in from out on the right wing. The keeper retreated into his goal, confused, as the ball curled away at the last moment and flashed beyond the far post. It would have been an astonishing goal.
At the break, you began to wonder whether the team would continue to press, or sit back and conserve their energy for Anfield on Sunday. The answer was emphatically the former.
Hleb, having had his earlier effort ruled as an own goal, got his name on the scoresheet with a beauty – Cesc played him in down the left hand side, the defender anticipated a lashed left foot shot, but he cut inside and drilled the ball inside the near post with defender and keeper flailing the wrong way. It was clinical finishing from a man much maligned for exactly that. The impact his improvement has had on the team’s fortunes this season should not be underestimated.
Walcott trebled his Arsenal career goal tally with his second of the night, a one touch move ending in Hleb slipping him through, where his burst of pace took him beyond the defender, before he opened his body and slid it beautifully across the keeper and in off the far post. Alan Smith, commentating, said during the replay that ‘you won’t see better’.
He was wrong, within minutes.
Before the hour mark, the goal of the night was scored. It was back to the old days, as seventeen seconds after Slavia took a corner, they were picking the ball out of their own net.
Cesc headed the ball out from the near post, and Hleb carried the ball at pace over the halfway line, before feeding Adebayor. The big man turned deftly, found Walcott, whose first time touch inside to Fabregas was perfect, as was the Spaniard’s finish, hammering the ball into the bottom corner. The most incredible thing about the goal was Cesc’s run – from getting his head to the ball defending a corner, to drilling the ball in at the other end, in a matter of seconds. The desire shown was incredible, with the side already 5-0 up.
Walcott then had a hattrick effort denied by a superb safe, with Rosicky just missing out on a goal that would’ve meant so much to him, hitting the post with the rebound.
But just when you thought the scoring was over, the ball was literally walked in for number seven at the end. An exquisite back heel flick from Eboue sent Bendtner away, and his first touch took the keeper out of the game before he bundled it over the line.
So 7-0 it was, equalling the biggest ever Champions League win, and our own European record, matching the 7-0 away triumph in Liege, when even Eddie McGoldrick scored. Both nights were remarkable.
Walcott and Fabregas get the obvious and deserved plaudits, and both were sensational, but they were far from alone – Hleb was outstanding and Eboue was inventive despite one more of his sprawling moments. Clichy worked his socks off while Sagna was impregnable, and Adebayor, although not on the scoresheet, created space with intelligent running.
A quick word for Almunia at the back. With the match already won, Slavia created a few good chances, but he repelled everything they threw at him, including one excellent save low to his right. Another win, another clean sheet, and the rest of that story can wait for another post. The individual concerned frankly does not deserve a mention after such a glorious occasion.
Liverpool play away in Turkey tonight, and with only one point so far they need a result, so the pressure is on. Our lads, meanwhile, can put their feet up, relax, and prepare for Sunday.
What a time this is to be a Gooner.