ARSENAL manager Arsene Wenger shrugged off the possibility of a Champions League rematch with their conquerors of last season, Barcelona, or Real Madrid, after sneaking into the last 16 with a victory over Partizan Belgrade.
Forward Robin van Persie’s first goal of the season, a sweet volley from Theo Walcott and yet another smart finish from Samir Nasri ushered the Gunners into the knockout round for the 11th year in a row.
Finishing second in Group H means Arsenal will meet one of the heavyweights next, with Barca, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich three of only four possible opponents.
Yet Wenger played it cool at the prospect of meeting the Spanish champions, who, led by four-goal magician Lionel Messi, drubbed the north Londoners so mercilessly in last season’s quarter-finals.
“We have 50 per cent chance of travelling to Spain, and 50 per cent chance of travelling to Germany,” said Wenger of next week’s draw. “If you ask me where I’d like to go, I don’t know. For you journalists, maybe you might prefer to go to Spain; for us, not necessarily. We shouldn’t fear anyone.”
Van Persie, who opened the scoring from the penalty spot on the half hour, was more bullish, positively inviting a clash with the Catalans or Real Madrid, managed by Jose Mourinho, when asked who he would prefer to face.
“As a football fan Barcelona or [Real] Madrid but we’ll see what the draw will be,” said the Dutchman.
As is there want, Arsenal made life tough for themselves after Cleo’s deflected strike in the 52nd minute cancelled out Van Persie’s first-half penalty.
Substitute Walcott eased the tension with a smartly taken volley 20 minutes later, before Nasri put the gloss on the scoreline with a crisp low finish from just inside the box after good work from Alex Song.
WHILE Robin van Persie’s return to fitness is undoubtedly good news for Arsenal, it presents Arsene Wenger with a tactical puzzle, writes Frank Dalleres.
His deployment behind a centre forward -- Marouane Chamakh last night, Nicklas Bendtner in last week’s Carling Cup win – neatly solves the problem of how to incorporate the club’s most gifted centre-forward without losing a target man.
However, on the evidence of his last two starts, the system is highly suspect. Yes, the Gunners won both games, but in unconvincing fashion, and with a lack of creativity in midfield.
Van Persie’s inclusion necessitates two more defensively minded midfielders -- last night Denilson and Alex Song -- who cannot dictate the play.
More importantly it means Samir Nasri, by far Arsenal’s best player this season, is shunted into a wide role, while Van Persie,who is inventive but no playmaker, is forced to retreat ever deeper in search of the ball. In short, it gets the best out of no-one.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE DRAW FORMAT
The draw for the next round is made in Switzerland next Friday. The winners of each group will be pitted against the runners-up of another, with teams from the same country prevented from facing each other.