Arsenal 2 Steaua Bucharest 1: Arsenal shine but fall short of summit

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The Independent Online

An Arsenal side half-full of reserves rose to the Champions League challenge last night but their victory narrower than it should have been was rendered effectively meaningless as Seville's win in Prague confirmed the north Londoners in second place in Group H. That means a last 16 meeting with Internazionale, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Milan or Porto. As far as their manager, Arsne Wenger, is concerned it is a case of "bring 'em on..."

Wenger, banned from the touchline by Uefa after an outburst of temper in defeat in Seville, said those five possible opponents did not worry him. "We can do it... of course we can," he said. "I am highly confident we can beat everybody."

He pointed out that his side had beaten Juventus two years ago after finishing second, but had lost to Eindhoven last season after finishing top. "I am not at all disappointed not to finish top; it is a cup game."

Five of the young players drafted into the Arsenal side last night helped to take the club to last season's Carling Cup final and, with Arsenal keeping their powder dry before Sunday's home Premier League match against Chelsea, the young guns kept their manager who will be anxious to avoid an extension to his ban when Uefa considers his case today satisfied.

"We had many players out tonight," Wenger said afterwards. "Eight did not play and four are injured. But we have a very strong squad."

Arsenal came out like greyhounds, although in some cases they tired like puppies. Their exuberant start threatened to rout the opposition but, although they established a two-goal lead by half-time, their over-eagerness in front of goal allowed a technically accomplished Steaua side to produce a late flourish which, had Ovidiu Petre's 85th-minute pot shot not swerved outside the post, might have provided a second point of their campaign.

If Arsenal were unfamiliar with home territory after four successive matches elsewhere, it did not take them long to settle. They were ahead within seven minutes as the rampaging midfield figure of Abou Diaby, wide left but wearing the No 2 shirt, sprang ahead of Ionut Rada to control a cross from the right by Bacary Sagna before drilling the ball across the diving and gorgeously named Robinson Zapata and inside the far post.

Arsenal might have made their superiority clear even earlier had Theo Walcott, full of hyperactive promise on the right, been able to produce an end product. After just three minutes a sumptuous through ball from Robin van Persie making his first appearance since injuring his knee on 7 October freed the youngster for a run on goal which ended with him pulling a shot wide.

Two minutes later, Walcott after whizzing through the Steaua defence fizzled out again with a shot lifted over the bar.

Four minutes from half-time Nicklas Bendtner accepted another cute pass from Van Persie and set off on a diagonal run that saw him roll the ball home after negotiating the flailing challenges of Mihai Nesu and the keeper, Zapata. Viva Bendtner. Viva Arsenal.

But the home verve began to flag after the break, and the substitute Dorel Zaharia caused unlikely tremors of anxiety in the 69th minute with a header that looped beyond the grasp of the 38-year-old Jens Lehmann, recalled in the home goal for one night only.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Sagna (Diarra, 71 min), Gallas, Senderos, Traor; Walcott, Song, Denilson, Diaby (Ebou, 71); Van Persie (Eduardo, 65), Bendtner. Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Tour, Gilberto, Adebayor.

Steaua Bucharest (4-4-1-1): Zapata; Emeghara, Goian, Rada, Nesu; Neaga (Zaharia, 64), Petre, Lovin, Cristocea (Surdu, 57); Badea (Golanski, 81); Dica. Substitutes not used: Cernea (gk), Bicfalvi, Baciu, Marin.

Referee: Y Baskakov (Russia).

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