Arsenal secure top spot with a game to spare as Van Persie draws yet more superlatives


ARSENAL manager Arsene Wenger admitted his surprise after the Gunners became the first English team to reach this season’s Champions League knockout stage.

Top scorer Robin van Persie netted twice -- taking his tally to 17 from 18 games for Arsenal this term and 38 in 41 this calendar year -- to guarantee top spot in Group F.

The north Londoners were tipped to struggle after a dreadful start to the campaign, but instead find themselves safe while Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United are in peril.

“I am surprised to be the first English club to qualify,” said Wenger. “I don’t want to say too much. Man United could qualify last night [Tuesday] and of course everybody expects Man City to qualify. It’s difficult at that level against anybody.”

Wenger found himself obliged to deliver his now-customary post-match praise for Van Persie, noting his game only seems to have improved since replacing Cesc Fabregas as skipper in the summer.

“He is in a period where he doesn’t have to look for goals; they just come naturally for him,” added the Frenchman.

Arsenal grew into the contest, helped by the visitors’ loss of midfielders Mario Goetze and Sven Bender to injury early on, yet it was not until four minutes after half-time that they took the lead.

The Gunners are known for nimble footwork and wing play, but Alex Song less so, however it was the defensive midfielder who shrugged off one challenge and brilliantly beat two more defenders, before crossing from the left for Van Persie to nod down and in.

If the source of the first was unlikely, so was the second – a set piece – in the 86th minute, Thomas Vermaelen flicking on a corner at the near post for an unmarked Van Persie to tap his second, and earn an 11th win in 13 games, regardless of Shinji Kagawa’s late consolation.