Arsenal’s great escape on track after Zagreb cast aside

Progress to last 16 will come down to final game away at Olympiakos

Arsenal 3 Dinamo Zagreb 0

Could it possibly be that Arsenal are about to complete one of the more rousing feats of escapology from all their years of competing in the Champions League? They have certainly enhanced their chances with this victory and if they can beat Olympiakos in Athens in their final group match then Arsène Wenger’s record of having qualified for the knockout stages in 15 successive seasons might yet be extended.

Even then, there are conditions attached given that, in its simplest terms, it is now effectively a two-legged contest to find out who takes the second qualifying spot behind Bayern Munich. Olympiakos came away with a 3-2 win on their visit to London in September and that means a 1-0 win, for example, will not be enough for Wenger’s team at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium. Yet they are still in with a credible chance and one imagines they would have gladly been in this position after the ordeal of losing their first two games.

They should also be relatively optimistic about completing the recovery if they can replicate this kind of fluent, attacking display, with Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez at the heart of it. Both scored in the four-minute spell of the first half when Arsenal turned their supremacy into the hard currency of goals. Sánchez then turned in his second of the night midway through the second half and by the end of a slick and stress-free performance there was at least a new sense of hope among the stands.


The unusually large expanses of empty seats – Arsenal’s official attendance, 58,978, is deceptive, including the large number of season-ticket holders whose seats were unoccupied – indicated that many supporters had started to lose hope about this campaign. Yet the score updates from Bavaria, where Bayern had established a three-goal lead inside the first 20 minutes, gave the crowd encouragement and Arsenal certainly gave the impression they considered themselves alive.

Dinamo were moderate opponents and their conservatism, operating from deep inside their own half, initially managed to subdue Arsenal. The pressure, however, was concerted and Wenger's men passed the ball with the speed and accuracy that could have troubled much more refined opposition. Hector Bellerín was operating as an auxiliary right winger, doubling up with Joel Campbell, during that period in the first half when Dinamo's position in Group F was made irreparable. Nacho Monreal was almost as advanced on the other side and Arsenal's ambition was rewarded with the quick one-two that put them in a position of strength they never seemed likely to relinquish.

The first goal originated in their own half, with Santi Cazorla prominently involved in a blur of quick, crisp passing that eliminated four Dinamo players on one of their rare attacking forays. Arsenal were suddenly counterattacking at speed and the ball was with Sánchez on the left. Özil showed great determination to get into the six-yard area, sprinting forwards and turning in the cross with a stooping header.

Arsenal were so dominant in these moments it must pain Wenger that the 2-1 defeat in Zagreb in September has left them so vulnerable. There was little response and Leonardo Sigali’s mistake for the second goal was the hard evidence about how it had flustered the Croatian champions. Another wave of attacking had just broken down when the ball arrived at the centre back’s feet and it was a dismal attempt on his part to find one of his team-mates. Sigali’s pass went straight to Monreal, who showed great anticipation to intercept the ball and drive into the penalty area, resisting the chance to shoot himself and turning it inside for Sánchez to score from a more inviting angle.

Wenger was entitled to think his side were so in control, with Özil and Cazorla creating so many problems, they should have added further goals before half-time but after the break the tempo dropped. For Arsenal, there was no longer any requirement to press forward with so much urgency. Dinamo did not look like they believed there was any realistic prospect of a recovery but it was understandable if Wenger wanted his players to exercise a touch more caution.

All the same, there were still plenty of occasions when the quickness of their attacks created more openings and Dinamo’s sole objective seemed to be keeping the score down. Campbell can still be raw but he has good acceleration and his first thought is always to head goalwards. His pass for Sánchez’s second goal also showed a combination of vision and artistry. Campbell had cut in from the right, with the ball on his left boot, and his pass was beautifully weighted to slice open the Dinamo defence. Sánchez darted in to take the ball around the goalkeeper Eduardo and scoop his shot into the exposed goal.

By that stage, Wenger had brought on Aaron Ramsey in place of Olivier Giroud to make his return from a month out with hamstring injury. Petr Cech's brilliant reflex save spared Mathieu Flamini an own goal and when Arsenal can play with this exuberance it just makes it even more perplexing the trip to Greece cannot be a more straightforward occasion.

(Guardian service)