Goals from Eduardo, Emmanuel Eboue and Andrey Arshavin helped Arsenal to a straight-forward 3-1 victory at Ashburton Grove last night and booked the team's ticket into the Champions League group stage. It was a long way from being the most accomplished performance from the Gunners that we have witnessed this season. They were not at their best - and they didn't need to be to beat a Celtic team that barely created three meaningful chances over the two legs.
The main talking point of last night's match surrounded the awarding of the penalty which led to Arsenal's first goal when Eduardo was adjudged to have been brought down by goalkeeper Artur Boruc. The Croatian got back to his feet to convert the resultant spot-kick and effectively ended the tie as a contest with Celtic players still remonstrating with the referee long after the ball had hit the back of the net. Viewing the incident in real time at the stadium, it did not look a clear-cut penalty and not many Arsenal fans were appealing when Eduardo went down. Replays have since shown that any contact was very minimal and the Arsenal striker had made the most of the situation.
Probably the most diplomatic thing to say is that the Gunners benefited from some generous refereeing. Eduardo is not the first player to have gone down under the faintest of touches to buy a penalty for his team nor will he be the last. Arsenal have been on the receiving end of similar decisions going the other way and, as always with football, these things tend to even themselves out. That is not to condone or excuse diving or the exaggeration challenges, but it would be entirely naïve to assume or even expect that players will always play the game in the Corinthian spirit.
With that fact of life in mind, the hysterical reaction, or rather over-reaction, to the incident by the media, the Scottish FA and UEFA today is surprising to say the least. Some of the comments that have emanated from those three bodies have gone way over the top, particularly in the light of the fact that Arsenal won the tie so easily over the two legs and, when it came down to it, the penalty decision was largely irrelevant. One might have thought that Eduardo was being accused of the most heinous offence ever perpetrated on a football pitch from the level of sanctimonious outrage and hand-wringing from certain quarters that has been expressed the day after.
There have been calls for a UEFA inquiry and a ban for Eduardo if he is found guilty. Let’s think about that for a moment. If the Croatian is found guilty of simulation and banned for one or two matches I am sure that the player and Arsenal Football Club will take the punishment on the chin and without any fuss. The question will be though: if UEFA do take that course of action will they continue to apply it consistently in future and in every instance? And if banning players for simulation retrospectively on video evidence is to become an adopted practice, will it only be for players seeking to gain penalty kicks? Or will it be for dives within a goalscoring range? Or for anywhere on the pitch? Already one can sense a can of worms opening.
The chances are that Eduardo will get banned by UEFA to appease the hysterics of the media and the SFA – even though a yellow card is the actual punishment for such an offence - and then the whole thing will most likley be forgotten until the next controversial incident. But, if UEFA do go down that route, it will set a very large precedent, particularly with regard to over-ruling their own officials.
This argument will rumble on until, well, something more interesting comes along to displace it from the back pages. All that Arsenal fans really care about is that the team have progressed to the group stage of the Champions League and this afternoon they were drawn with AZ Alkmaar, Olympiacos and Standard Liege. Hardly, three of the most glamorous teams that the Gunners could have been drawn with but, in avoiding the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus and Internationale, it is group that they ought to be able to win and win well. That said, they cannot afford to show any complacency or lack of focus as all three teams are champions of their respective countries and will not be there just to make up the numbers.
So, with Champions League qualification taken care of, attention now turns to Saturday and the first really big game of the season when Arsene Wenger takes his team to Old Trafford to face Manchester United. I do not subscribe to the view that the great start to the season is merely attributable to poor-quality opposition. In truth, the Gunners have made their opposition look inept by getting their approach right and playing some excellent football. Despite that, there is no doubt we will have a far clearer idea after Saturday’s match as to whether this team look like real contenders this season. That is not to say they necessarily have to go up there and win - though a victory would be a tremendous signal to all of their rivals and critics. It is more about whether they show the right attitude, rise to the challenge of their stiffest examination so far this term and actually compete with United mentally as well as physically.
We all know this team can play when they want to but what will make them real winners is whether they can reproduce their best form, retain their focus and sustain a supreme level of competitiveness week after week after week, from now until May. Old Trafford would be a great place for them to start proving they have what it takes.