For a while last night it seemed the gloom that descended when a set of floodlights failed prior to kick-off in Belgrade would also envelop Arsène Wenger. Despite their clear superiority Arsenal made hard work of securing a second successive Champions League victory.
Having led after 15 minutes through Andrei Arshavin's fifth goal of the season the Gunners missed a series of chances to wrap this Group H tie up. They then conceded a needless equaliser when Denilson handled in the box. That reinvigorated the crowd in this intimidating Balkan cauldron and for a while it seemed the banner hanging from behind one goal – "You have been flattened by a steamroller" – might prove prophetic.
That was the first of three penalties. The second went to Arsenal, controversially as Marouane Chamakh appeared to dive when challenged by Marko Jovanovic. Though Arshavin struck it woefully Arsenal still benefited as their subsequent goals, by Chamakh and Sébastien Squillaci, were headers that the dismissed centre-half might have prevented.
Even then the drama was not over as Lukasz Fabianski, standing in for Manuel Almunia and in dire need of a good performance, saved the third penalty of the night to confirm Arsenal's victory.
It was a confidence-boosting save for the much-maligned 'keeper and he screamed into the night air with relief. His improved mood was further lifted by a point-blank late save from Ivica Iliev which spared Arsenal a nervous last few minutes. At the end his team-mates went to him as one to celebrate his good night.
Fabianski's evening of redemption could have significant consequences. With Almunia struggling to be fit by Sunday the Pole will probably have to face Didier Drogba and company at Stamford Bridge.
Fabianski will thus have more reason than most to be grateful that Wenger was so keen to start the match despite electrical problems which had put it in doubt. The floodlights suffered a partial failure four times in the hour before kick-off. If that plunged the pitch and stands into gloom it was even worse in the dressing rooms where Arsenal players had to use the light from the screens on their mobile phones to see.
This was the first Champions League tie in Serbia for seven years and Partizan thought they were ready. The club had upgraded the stadium, provided a black-and-white flag on every seat together with an appeal to their notorious followers to behave. They also flooded the ground and its environs with security.
The intimidating atmosphere evoked memories of Istanbul, Athens and Rome but Wenger clearly felt his players would cope for he named another youthful team including Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, and a rare Champions League appearance for Johan Djourou.
The focus, though, was on Fabianski and he made the good start he probably needed when he had to dive bravely at the feet of Pierre Boya after Squillaci left a back-header short after 11 minutes. That capped a bad start by Squillaci. After surviving a penalty appeal when pulling Boya over he conceded possession with a poor header that led to a break by Cleo. The Brazilian-Serb picked out Nemanja Tomic but he was superbly tackled by Denilson. Cleo, who resembles Gabriel Batistuta with his powerful build and flowing locks, then muscled Djourou off a long ball before shooting over.
Arsenal produced the perfect riposte. Alex Song fed Arshavin who released Wilshere. The youngster, playing in the Cesc Fabregas role behind Chamakh, drew defenders then slipped the ball back to Arshavin who scored.
The goal prompted mutual missile-throwing over the fence that kept the Partizan hard core apart from the Arsenal fans. On the pitch it deflated the home team and for the next 15 minutes Arsenal cut them apart at will. Arshavin and Rosicky should have made the game safe, but Vladimir Stojkovic, once unmemorably of Wigan, denied both. When Arshavin finally beat him the ball was cleared off the line.
The misses proved costly. Just after the half-hour Denilson blocked a cross with his upper arm and Cleo sent Fabianski the wrong way from the spot.
The next penalty came just before the hour. Song and Arshavin combined to send Chamakh away and he tumbled under Jovanovic's challenge. Wolfgang Stark dismissed the Serb and awarded a penalty. However, replays suggested Chamakh fell under the most minimal of contact, which called into question the point of having an extra official behind the goal if he is of so little assistance. With Fabregas injured and Samir Nasri, who converted two penalties at White Hart Lane last week, on the bench, Arshavin took the kick. It was a terrible effort and Stojkovic saved easily. It was the second penalty Arsenal had missed since Fabregas was injured, Tomas Rosicky having blazed over at Sunderland.
Nevertheless the Serbs were a man light and it showed when Chamakh rose to meet a cross from Rosicky. His header struck the bar but Chamakh reacted first to head in the rebound.
Victory seemed assured when, with eight minutes to go, Squillaci headed in Denilson's corner. However, two minutes later Gibbs brought down Ivan Stevanovic in the area. Up stepped Cleo, but this time Fabianski dived full length to make a fine save.
With Shakhtar Donetsk winning 3-0 against Braga in Portugal, Arsenal and the Ukrainian club are both six points clear at the top of the group. They meet in London on 19 October. Victory then would all but ensure Arsenal a place in the knock-out stages.
Partizan Belgrade 4-4-2: Stojkovic; Stevanovic, Jovanovic, Krstajic, Lazevski; Tomic (Savic, 59), Medo, Petrovic (Smiljanic, 69), Ilic; Boya (Iliev, 83), Cleo. Substitutes not used Zivkovic (gk), Stankovic, Bogunovic, Kizito.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Fabianski; Sagna, Djourou, Squillaci, Gibbs; Denilson, Song; Rosicky, Wilshere (Nasri, 74), Chamakh (Vela, 74); Arshavin (Clichy, 84). Substitutes not used Szczesny (gk), Koscielny, Eboué, Lansbury.
Man of the match Arshavin.
Referee W Stark (Germany).
Match rating 8/10.
Results so far: Arsenal 6 Braga 0, Shakhtar Donetsk 1 Partizan 0; Braga 0 Shakhtar Donetsk 3, Partizan 1 Arsenal 3.
Arsenal's remaining fixtures 19 Oct S Donetsk (h); 3 Nov S Donetsk (a); 23 Nov Braga (a); 8 Dec FK Partizan (h).
Braga 0-3 Shakhtar Donetsk
Donetsk warmed up for their double-header with Arsenal with a comfortable victory in Portugal. After a slow start, the game came alive when Luiz Adriano ran onto a clever pass from Douglas Costa in the 56th minute, sliding his shot under Felipe to give Shakhtar the lead. He added a second 15 minutes later, beating Felipe at the near post after more good work from Costa. He turned goalscorer in injury time, scoring from the spot after his compatriot, William, was brought down by home striker Paulo Cesar.
Under-fire Pole had little opportunity to impress early on. No chance with first penalty but got down well to keep out second spot-kick. 7
Enjoyed his regular chances to advance into the Belgrade half before the break but was forced back more after the interval. 6
Surprise inclusion ahead of Laurent Koscielny and often looked rusty in his first Champions League appearance since last May. 6
Appeared to be suffering hangover from West Brom display early on. Mix-up almost let Partizan in before he secured win near the end. 7
England international got forward down the right wing from the start and was also confident when called upon defensively. 7
Shot straight at Stojkovic after being set up by Arshavin, and was wasteful again after the break. Fine cross to set up Chamakh's goal. 6
Endured a mixed evening. Made fine saving tackle to prevent Belgrade going ahead before being harshly penalised for handball. 6
Quietly combative showing from the heart of the midfield. Broke up sporadic Belgrade attacks and kept midfield engine room motoring. 6
Appeared to have got out of bed on the right side. Drove forward from the start and deserved his opener. Missed chance for a second from the spot. 8
Increased burgeoning reputation with composed showing in the absence of Fabregas. Marvellous backheel to set up Arshavin's opener. 7
Often isolated up front but created space for others. Disappointingly eager to go down for penalty but quick to react for Arsenal's second. 7
C Vela (for Chamakh, 74) Creative Mexican was brought on in an attempt to secure the points but was unable to make an impact. 5
S Nasri (for Wilshere, 74) Surprisingly benched after recent fine form. Little time to impress but still managed to set up Squillaci. 6
G Clichy (for Arshavin, 84) Provided extra cover late on. n/a
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