Arsenal 5 (Bendtner 10, 25, pen 90, Nasri 63, Eboue 66) Porto 0
(Champions League 1st Knockout Round, agg 6-2)
How quickly fortunes can change. Three days after missing a host of chances against Burnley, Nicklas Bendtner performed like a complete centre forward – dominant in the air, leading the line well, and ending the game with the first hattrick of his fledgling career.
If Saturday was playing on his mind, it didn’t take long for those memories to be wiped clean. After an inauspicious start, Almunia’s long ball found Arshavin, who was retreating from an offside position. If the Porto management blame that for the goal, they will be missing the critical fact that the Russian then won a header against their centre back despite giving up nearly a foot in height. Nasri played a through ball back to him, defender and keeper collided, and Bendtner reacted quickest to level the tie.
It wasn’t the first header Arshavin had won – he had already forced a good save at the far post, and the space he was being afforded was almost embarrassing given the supposed strength of the Champions League. Minutes later, he whipped in a terrific cross that Bendtner just failed to connect with, but on 25 minutes, the pair did combine for the second.
Arshavin was again the creator, showing great trickery to turn three defenders inside out, but Porto fans will be rightly laying into their men for failing to put in any sort of challenge. It was almost as if they didn’t believe Arshavin had the skill to get past them – he did, he squared it, and Bendtner tapped in for 2-0.
It should have been three soon after – Arshavin blazing over an empty net following a Nasri cutback, and Diaby having a header superbly saved, but at the other end Porto were threatening. Sol was looking shaky, Clichy had a couple of dodgy moments, and you felt we needed the third to seal the tie.
The nerves began in the stands, but spread to the players at the start of the second half. Falcao hit a decent chance straight at Almunia, and Nasri blocked a header on the line. We needed respite, we needed someone to provide a little spark to put our minds at rest.
Cue Samir Nasri. Picking up the ball on the right hand side, he went out to the wing before cutting back inside. With three defenders in front of him, he seemed to be heading down a blind alley, but quick feet saw each of them bamboozled in turn, before he lashed an unstoppable shot in off the post. Miserable defending once again, but it was a moment of true magic from the man stepping into Cesc’s shoes for the evening. He filled them perfectly.
Samir Nasri celebrates his wonder goal
With that, we relaxed, but there was more to come. Just a couple of minutes later it was four, with a counter attacking goal the Invincibles would have been proud off. From a Porto corner, Arshavin broke away, sprinted past two men, before slipping in Eboue with a perfectly timed pass. The Ivorian rounded the keeper and finished coolly.
The tie was over, but the icing on the cake was still to come – Eboue was clumsily brought down after twisting into the box, and Bendtner dispatched the resultant penalty to cap a perfect night.
The Dane will get the plaudits, and rightly so – lambasted for his apparent over-confidence, his strength of character was needed to stand up in the face of intense criticism and prove his doubters wrong. He was terrific all night, but for me, there were three others who stood out even more.
At the back, Vermaelen was an absolute rock, putting in block after block to protect the clean sheet as if his life depended on it. We looked nervous in the early stages of the second half, in the knowledge that the 2-0 lead was not as safe as it sounded, but while Sol was edgy and Clichy error-prone, Vermaelen was the picture of determination. Even at the end, with the tie won, he was still flying into tackles, unwilling to concede a millimetre. Signing of the season?
Then there was the little Russian, who picked up three assists and left the Porto defence dizzy with some dazzling footwork. He may not have scored himself, but it was his early work that set us down the right path. He played us into trouble at times with risky passes, but when you have someone who can frighten opposition as he can, you have to take the rough with the smooth. He was excellent tonight.
But my man of the match was Samir Nasri. Entrusted with the Cesc role, he put in a defensive shift where necessary, drove the team forward, and scored the third goal precisely when we needed it. It seemed everything we did went through him, and the way he pulled the strings made you wonder if he’d taken on Cesc’s captaincy mantle at the same time. Almunia might have been wearing the armband, but Nasri was in charge.
There was other good displays – Song and Diaby in particular, and while there are still worries about our defensive stability with Sol or Silvestre in the side, tonight was proof once again that going forward, no-one can touch us. Porto are not an elite team, but they are better than we allowed them to be tonight.
It is natural to hope we avoid Premiership opposition in the next round, although it was interesting to hear Wenger say he would quite like to face United or Chelsea to prove that we can beat them. It is an interesting thought. But having seen Bayern progress tonight, they would be far more favourable opposition, and it would feel like a true European tie.
But that can wait – the draw is not until the end of next week, after the protracted round is finally done and dusted. For now, we can bask in the glow of a stunning night’s work.
Take a bow, lads.