Bendtner's late hit puts edgy Arsenal in the pink
Arsenal 1 Dynamo Kiev 0
Wednesday 26 November 2008
Arsenal started the day in the blackest of moods but ended it in the pink. Yes, Nicklas Bendtner – one man at the club who can astonishingly claim the dubious honour of probably being less popular than William Gallas – did wear those injudicious, garish salmon boots and used them, as a second-half substitute, to strike the late, if highly controversial goal that sent Arsenal into the last 16 of the Champions League.
With it the young Dane did something he has rarely done before. He positively transformed the atmosphere inside the Emirates, lifted the fortunes of his team and sent a shot of belief coursing through a traumatised club. This was one goal he did not celebrate on his own. "It's a first step for us because at the moment what the team needs is a bit of reassurance," admitted manager Arsène Wenger, who celebrated Arsenal's 150th goal in this competition.
It was, also, a tentative step ahead of Sunday's Premier League game away to Chelsea – Arsenal hope to have Emmanuel Adebayor, Bacary Sagna and Samir Nasri back – where defeat would finally kill of any lingering title hopes. In truth Arsenal were fortunate to win against the Ukrainian champions, who struck the post and were denied by a superb save from Manuel Almunia – a moment before the goal that Wenger described as a "turning point" – as they at first frustrated and then threatened.
Even so, the provenance of the goal itself was extremely dubious. Arsenal believed they were awarded a free-kick, although Dynamo clearly thought it was a drop ball and that Gallas was going to return possession to them. Instead Cesc Fabregas, the new captain, took the kick/drop ball and, while it was rolling, flighted a wonderful 60-yard pass into the path of Bendtner. Even then Dynamo protested, claiming that the striker handled – which he did not – before he crisply struck home with his left foot, but the visitors sense of injustice exploded and Olexandr Aliyev was eventually sent off. "The referee said 'leave the ball to me' – so I took it and played. We have to accept that," Fabregas later said which didn't really clear up the confusion. Not that Arsenal will care.
For Bendtner it was a redeeming moment and the first goal Arsenal had scored in almost three games – which for their free-flowing football represents a veritable drought. He had been dumped to the bench – with Carlos Vela elevated – after a series of poor, often anonymous, contributions. "I'm very happy for him because I felt he was a bit disturbed recently with a lack of confidence," Wenger said of Bendtner, which will have raised a few smiles at Arsenal given the arrogance the player is usually accused of showing too much of and the lack of popularity he merits from supporters.
The victory also allowed Wenger to do one more thing. He was able to praise Gallas, who had been stripped of the captaincy, dropped and then recalled for this encounter more because Arsenal – with nine players injured – needed him than through any great desire to immediately rehabilitate after his intemperate outburst last week aimed at his team-mates. "His focus was great and you could see that he wanted to do well," Wenger said of Gallas. "The crowd responded very well which means that somewhere they acknowledge he was a committed captain."
For a while Gallas seemed determined to make himself the story. He had a goal ruled out for offside, inadvertently blocked another effort – from Robin van Persie no less, one of the players he had clashed with – and horrifically gifted Dynamo a golden chance from which they struck the woodwork. Still Almunia planted a kiss on Gallas's shaven head when Bendtner scored.
Wenger will wonder what all this means. A revival? Or another false dawn? Crisis management? Or inspired stewardship? Arsenal are certainly not firing. Not yet, anyway. The cheers at the end were simply fuelled by relief, not joy, and supporters will cling more to the promise of Aaron Ramsey – who started brightly and tested Stanislav Bogush with a flicked shot – and Jack Wilshere – who became, at 16 years and nine months, the youngest player to appear for Arsenal in this competition – than anything else. Gallas and Mikaël Silvestre – who put the ball over – went close as they tried to turn in dangerous free-kicks from Van Persie before a shot from the Dutch striker struck Bogush on the chest and ran away. Gallas then erred. After dispossessing Ismael Bangoura, he turned back into the striker's path, had the ball whisked away and watched as an angled shot from the Guinean beat the stranded Almunia only to clip the outside of the goalkeeper's near post.
Dynamo threatened further. Shots over – from Tiberiu Ghioane – and skidding wide – from Bangoura – and then into Almunia's midriff (which he spilled) – from Aliyev were a reminder that it was now a contest. In truth, Arsenal were increasingly ragged. Ideas were in short supply, confidence was falling with Aliyev provoking an angry response for rolling around in agony, feigning injury and then springing to his heels as Dynamo won the ball back. Finally Almunia had to sprint from his goal to superbly deny Artem Milevskiy, who Wenger had identified as Dynamo's most dangerous player.
How crucial it was to prove as, eventually and with time running out, Arsenal scored that vital goal. Whether it was legitimate or not did not really matter to them in the final reckoning – although it did, of course, for Dynamo. Arsenal would have effectively qualified with a goalless draw – after Gallas's strike in Kiev earlier this season, of course – but it was a moment that meant more than earning two extra points.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Djourou, Gallas, Silvestre, Clichy; Ramsey (Bendtner, 68), Fabregas, Song, Denilson; Van Persie, Vela (Wilshere, 77). Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Gibbs, Hoyte, Merida, Simpson.
Dynamo Kiev (4-4-2): Bogush; Betao, Asatiani, Diakhate, El Kaddouri; Eremenko, Ghioane, Vukojevic, Aliyev; Bangoura, Milevsky. Substitutes not used: Shovkovskiy (gk), Dopilka, Sabljic, Correa, Shatskikh, Cernat, Yarmolenko.
Referee: A Hamer (Luxembourg).
Results: Dynamo Kiev 1 Arsenal 1; Porto 3 Fenerbahce 1; Arsenal 4 Porto 0; Fenerbahce 0 Dynamo Kiev 0; Fenerbahce 2 Arsenal 5; Porto 0 Dynamo Kiev 1; Arsenal 0 Fenerbahce 0; Dynamo Kiev 1 Porto 2; Arsenal 1 Dynamo Kiev 0; Fenerbahce 1 Porto 2.
Arsenal's remaining group stage fixture: 10 Dec: Porto (a).
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