In the absence of Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal swept aside Porto with a five-goal victory to advance to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. It was a wonderfully determined performance by the Gunners, the highlight of which was a hat-trick from Nicklas Bendtner who made amends for his striking horror show against Burnley at the weekend.
Samir Nasri scored the goal of the night, finishing a mazy run in the box that left Porto defenders in his wake with a rifling shot into the far corner of the net. Emmanuel Eboue also got on the scoresheet by rounding the keeper at the end of a thrilling breakaway.
You have to admire the way Bendtner bounced back. Some of the criticism he received from the media after the Burnley match was completely over the top to the extent that by yesterday morning BBC Radio Five Live reported that Arsene Wenger was keeping faith with his young striker after he had missed "six open goals" on Saturday.
I don’t know about you but my definition of an open goal is quite literal - there is no opposition player between the striker and the goal and all he has to do is place the ball into the empty net. As bad as the Dane’s misses were on Saturday to report he squandered half a dozen open-goal opportunities was a scandalous and grossly exaggerated distortion of the truth that does the player no favours at all.
Hat-trick Man Bendtner
As I reported in my last post, he received a rousing ovation from the Ashburton Grove fans when he was subbed off on Saturday and he repaid their faith with interest. The first goal saw him react quicker than the Porto defence to a loose ball. The second was a tap-in and the third was a late penalty. Some might argue they were “easy chances” but, being under such scrutiny and pressure, I don’t think anything was going to be completely straight-forward for him last night.
Any psychological hangover he might have had from the weekend was not in evidence though as he did the job that Arsenal needed him to do in what was a hugely important match - he got into the right positions and converted his chances as they came along. His contribution to the overall team effort was also worthy of note. He won countless headers during the evening and involved himself in plenty of link-up play.
The challenge for him now is to go on and produce performances like this time after time. He will not score hat-tricks in every match but neither will he be as profligate as he was against Burnley. His response to his weekend nightmare was swift and convincing. He now needs to move on, get his head down and concentrate on producing consistent displays.
With the captain injured, Samir Nasri also stepped up to the plate in the way that we hoped he would. He showed plenty of industry in the heart of midfield and his passing was efficient and effective. For too long Cesc has had to take the sole responsibility for making the midfield tick so it is good news that Nasri is now starting to show signs of being a more-than-able deputy. Elsewhere, the full return of Andrey Arshavin added to Arsenal’s offensive threat. Although not a scorer, he was involved in the creation of the three of the goals and troubled the Porto defence all evening.
It has to be said that the overall attacking performance was excellent last night. The team seemed to be patient, focussed and concentrated. If there had to be one criticism of the display it was that the defence did look ragged at times. Though Porto were only able to mount sporadic periods of pressure and rarely got as far as forcing a save out of Manuel Almunia, there were still a few heart-attack moments at the back and the home support could only rest easy once the fourth goal had gone in at the other end. Despite this, history will show that the team kept a clean sheet and they should be applauded for that. However, they will have to tighten things up defensively in the next round when they will inevitably be paired with stronger opposition than the Portuguese side.
Still, last night was not a night for picking holes in the performance. If you can’t sit back and enjoy a 5-0 home victory in the Champions League then you might as well give up being a football fan. The players cannot spend too long basking in their victory though as they have to prepare for a trip to Hull City on Saturday in the Premier League. It is always tricky going away to teams who are battling relegation and the Gunners’ attitude will have to be absolutely spot-on. Add to this the previous history between the two clubs concerning various incidents that have taken place both on and off the pitch and it is match where Arsene Wenger is going to have to make sure the players carry out their task with cold-blooded professionalism.
Whilst we wait and hope for Chelsea and Manchester United to drop further points, the Arsenal players have to uphold their end of the deal by continuing win games and maintain pressure at the top. The trip to Hull could be an awkward one but it is exactly the sort of match the team need to be taking the full three points from if they are going to have a realistic chance of being involved in the shake-up come May.