Imperious Gunners stroll on Eduardo return
They rose as one, all 60,000 of them, to acclaim the final scorer on a night full of goals. Familiar chants rang out around the stadium and the PA announcer enthusiastically bellowed his name to those in attendance. But the man who scored the goal remained silent as he turned back to the halfway line, with a furrowed brow and a distinct air of reluctance. It may be a surreal scenario, but that was precisely how Eduardo's goal for Shakhtar Donetsk was greeted at Emirates Stadium - a surely unprecedented turn of events, and one that demonstrated just how comfortable an evening this was for the Gunners as they won 5-1.
Thierry Henry and Robert Pires have both benefitted from warm receptions upon their returns with Barcelona and Villarreal in recent seasons, but there was something especially heartfelt about the welcome afforded to Eduardo, who departed in the summer, his Arsenal career brutally interrupted and then shortened by that horrendous leg break.
The issue of Eduardo's injury hung grimly and inescapably over this game, but stripping away such sentiment, the result was an emphatic one for his former side. Arsenal have reached the knockout stages of the Champions League for the past seven seasons and an eighth will surely follow after this disconcertingly easy procession. Arsene Wenger's suggestion in his programme notes that the Ukrainians are "one of the best sides in Europe" was perceptibly false on this evidence.
This stroll against Shakhtar hardly resembled a contest but, then again, the Gunners have been here before - Arsenal have lost only one of 25 Champions League fixtures at Emirates Stadium. Already this season, faced with the Arsenalistas of Braga - a team who drew inspiration from this enclave of North London when choosing their livery - Arsenal have rattled in six goals. Against a Shakhtar side known for their pretty passing, they dominated another team in their own image and plundered five.
Ukraine's premier club side made headlines on their previous visit to London when, prior to a Europa League game against Fulham last season, they were denied access to Harrods. Once again on Tuesday, they were treated like interlopers at another London institution and quickly ushered out of town without so much as a point in their bag. Two years ago they won Europe's second cup competition; on Tuesday, having won their previous seven games, they were nigh on humiliated.
In response to whether the game was in fact too easy for Arsenal, Wenger replied: "When you win 1-0 it's too difficult, when you win 5-1 you think it's too easy. It's difficult to assess why you win 5-1. I think tonight we had an intelligent team attitude and a good tactical level. We made it easy because we had a good team performance. I believe our technical quality slowly got them tired."
Of course such consistency on Arsenal's part - enforced here by goals from Alex Song, Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas, Jack Wilshere and Marouane Chamakh - is admirable in the extreme, particularly when accompanied by such an impressive scoreline. In an era in which some of his managerial brethren are spending hundreds of millions of pounds, Arsene Wenger can rightly be proud of the regularity and style with which Arsenal progress to the latter stages of the competition on a much smaller budget. The problem is that it does not make for an exciting spectacle for the neutral, a scenario mirrored in Group F where Chelsea have nine points from three games, and possibly in Group C where Manchester United will remain top with a victory over Bursaspor on Wednesday. Where is the drama and tension?
Well, Eduardo provided some drama at the conclusion, but any semblance of tension was swept away inside 20 minutes as Arsenal benefitted from a large chunk of good fortune. Goalkeeping errors have been all too frequent a subject of conversation at Emirates Stadium in the past 12 months, but for once it was the home support rejoicing in ineptitude. Shakhtar 'keeper Andriy Pyatov came to meet a harmless, looping Sebastien Squillaci header from a corner and somehow managed to let the ball slip out of his grasp to allow Song to score.
It appeared Arsenal were beginning to exert real control over the contest - a concept that the talented, but over-enthusiastic Jack Wilshere must still become acquainted with. Since his first real exposure to the Arsenal first team in the Emirates Cup of 2008, Wilshere has been skidding round the turf like a clockwork toy with its spring coiled so tight it looks ready to snap.
On Saturday it did just that, when his poor tackle on Zigic earned him a red card and a three-game ban in the Premier League. Here, on European duty, the teenage midfielder clattered into Tomas Hubschmann after 25 minutes and was told in no uncertain terms by the referee that that type of challenge must be his last. Wenger will no doubt express similar sentiments in private, though he defended the midfielder in his post-match press conference, saying: "You want the player to go for the ball, as long as he has the intention; if he is a bit late that can happen. Today he was a fraction late but he went completely for the ball."
But that brief flashpoint was certainly the exception in a first half during which, performing from a deeper position than Cesc Fabregas, the 18-year-old exerted control of the flow and direction of Arsenal's attacks, usurping the captain's usual role to a certain degree as he enjoyed 74 completed passes at a success rate of an eyewatering 96%, compared to Fabregas' figures of 65 and 83%. Indeed, such is Arsenal's embarrassment of riches in the playmaking department, Samir Nasri was once again utilised in a wide position. However, the Frenchman, who continued what has been an excellent start to the season, was the centre of attention with just three minutes remaining of the half when controlling a cross from Song, holding off his marker and lashing a shot past Pyatov to give Arsenal a 2-0 half-time lead.
Lukasz Fabianski - who, like the safety sign at a hazardous factory can now boast a few weeks without serious incident - had to be sharp to deny Luiz Adriano at the start of the second period, but in truth there was no interruption to Arsenal's dominance. That much was confirmed when Adriano hauled down Johan Djourou at a set-piece, allowing Fabregas to score from the penalty spot. It was his fourth goal in three games, Arsenal's seventh penalty in ten Champions League home games, and more than enough for Wenger, who replaced the returning captain with Denilson for the final half hour.
Still the goals flowed. The excellent Wilshere finished coolly following a one-two with Rosicky, while Chamakh added a fifth when beating the offside trap to collect a lofted pass from Nasri. He even had time to gaze over at the assistant to check he had permission to stick the ball home. Eduardo's goal for Shakhtar merely completed a perfect night for Arsenal, as perverse as that may sound. Wenger admitted: "If you wanted someone to score for Shakhtar, it was Eduardo. We are all happy for him." It only drummed home the feeling that this was an all-too easy evening for Arsenal.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Jack Wilshere. Though his tackling remains cause for concern, this was another wonderfully mature performance from the teenager. He gladly accepted the responsibility of exercising authority in possession and his one-two with Rosicky and finish was delightful. Wenger urged the press to prevent the hype machine going into overdrive though, saying: "Give him time, let him play, I know that it isn't easy for you and that isn't your greatest strength."
ARSENAL VERDICT: Imperious. Though not approaching their very best, the Gunners enjoyed almost total dominance from start to finish and now sit proudly atop the group with maximum points. The return to action of Fabregas and Walcott also offers some hope that the usual injury problems may be subsiding.
SHAKHTAR VERDICT: Pretty woeful. They missed the authority of Fernandinho in the centre of midfield and failed to retain possession effectively in any area of the pitch. Their priority must be securing second spot and a place in the next round, though whether they have the quality to go any further is doubtful on this evidence.
THE ROONEY QUESTION: The press never miss the chance to grab Wenger's perspective on the big issues in football and Wayne Rooney's desire to leave Manchester United was no exception. On whether he would consider a move for the United striker, Wenger said: "It's a story I will be happy to read in the newspapers, but I want to keep out of it. We have enough strikers."