Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Gunners move two points clear in Group G

In the less historically-loaded of the two England v. Portugal matches in Matchday 2, Arsenal played their first official Champions League match in the new Emirates Stadium, hosting Porto. Despite a victory over Dynamo Zagreb in the qualifying round, the Gunners have taken a few games to get acquainted with their new digs just down the road from Highbury. A 3-0 victory over Sheffield United helped the cause, although beating Manchester United at Old Trafford could be seen as the turning point in their disappointing opening form. Arsene Wenger, pointing to last year’s defeat to Barcelona in the Final as motivation, knew his squad would love to establish a Highbury-esque dominance in their new home, and it looked like he was able to do so with a full squad, after playing without skipper Thierry Henry in Matchday 1.

Unfortunately it wasn’t, and Justin Hoyte was utilized at left back, with Gallas moving to the center, as Johan Djourou aggravated a foot injury during warm-ups. Wenger stuck to the 4-4-2 we knew before last year’s CL campaign, with Robin Van Persie pairing with Thierry Henry up front. Porto went with a 4-5-1 with Helder Postiga up front. From the beginning Arsenal threatened early, with their usual deft passing and overlapping runs, but Porto did well to frustrate the Gunners for most of the first half. Van Persie had a few opportunities in the first half, most notably a chance with just Helton, the Porto keeper, to beat, after a nifty pass from Henry. Unfortunately, he blasted it over the crossbar. Kolo Toure netted a nice close-range goal, but the ball was ruled out before Francesc passed the ball to the Ivorian international.

The first goal came seven minutes before the break, a near carbon copy of Arsenal’s first goal against Sheffield United on Saturday. Eboue, too powerful in his pace for Porto’s defenders, was able to run down the Portuguese left flank and crossed perfectly toward the far post, where Henry was able to get his head onto for his first in six European games. The captain's second header in three days. For Arsene Wenger and Arsenal fans, this is pretty much what you wanted, the ending of such a painful goal-drought, especially at home, and the captain Henry back to his usual dangerous form.

Hleb sealed the win with the second goal, his first in the Champions League, three minutes into the second half. William Gallas surged into midfield with the ball, carving open the Porto defense where he found Henry in front of the box, releasing Alexsandr Hleb running down to the right. Henry dished it off to the Belarusian international, and he shot low and precisely to find the corner of the net at the far post. And that pretty much sealed if for Arsenal’s first CL win at Emirates.

Porto, though possessing the ball nearly as much as Arsenal, showed little inventiveness. Technically sound, they showed great skill in its individual players, but lacked that killer instinct to finish off an attack. They never seemed to really threaten the North London side, and aside from a grim Jesualdo Ferriera on the touchline, they showed very little desire to offend. Postiga was pretty much unheard from, and was substituted for Lisandro Lopez at the half. But after Hleb’s goal, it seemed a foregone conclusion. Raul Meireles came on for Ricardo Costa, and along with Ricardo Quaresma, that did most of Porto’s little attacking. Ferriera even threw striker Adriano in for the winger Anderson in the 66th, but to no avail.

For Arsenal, a nice win to put them at the top of the group and begin what they hope to be a successful run in their new home. 2 out of 2, and a comfortable win, but the sight of William Gallas limping off with what seemed to be a hamstring injury cannot be overplayed. With Gallas and Djourou potentially out with injury, Arsenal fans are wont to see any more problems to their backline, especially with Phillipe Senderos and Lauren Bisan weeks away from fitness. For the Superliga-leading Porto, an admittedly young squad that was troubled by Arsenal’s tempo, sitting a point up from Hamburg does little to mask the possibility of an early exit from Europe

Henry hits mark as Arsenal rise [UEFA.com]

Arsenal coast past Porto [Eurosport.com]

Group G Standings [UEFA.com]


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