Fabregas back to lift Arsenal into European comfort zone

Arsenal 5 Shakhtar Donetsk 1
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The Independent Football

There was the rare sight of silverware being paraded at the Emirates last night – and gold and bronze. Arsenal had invited three of England's Commonwealth Games swimmers, Becky Adlington, Liam Tancock and Keri-Anne Payne, to show off their medals at half-time.

Maybe they took them into the Arsenal dressing room beforehand because the Gunners certainly played like a team on a mission to finally deliver a trophy of their own. They took their Champions League goal tally to 14 in three matches, making a team which arrived with a strong pedigree look out of their depth.

The goals were shared, Alex Song and Samir Nasri scoring in the first half, Cesc Fabregas, Marouane Chamakh and Jack Wilshere in the second. To cap off the night there was even a goal for the returning hero, Eduardo da Silva.

"When you win 5-1 people always think it is too easy," said Arsène Wenger, before admitting "we made it easy with a good team performance. We showed great technical quality which I believe got them tired and we took advantage. It is the points that are important, the number of goals is not, though it is good for confidence before we play Manchester City [on Sunday].

In a further boost, Fabregas is likely to start at Eastlands after playing for an hour in his first start since breaking down at Sunderland a month ago. "I didn't feel anything," said Fabregas of his hamstring, "it felt great."

Wenger was keen to bring Fabregas back for this tie was followed by two potentially difficult trips – the return in the Ukraine, and then to Portugal to face a Braga side who are more dangerous than their results indicate. Fabregas's return balanced the continued absence of three of the manager's preferred back four and the theoretically first-choice goalkeeper, Manuel Almunia.

Not that it mattered who was in the Arsenal goal in the opening half for Shakhtar Donetsk were desperately disappointing. Arsenal had the bulk of possession, but with Mircea Lucescu's side concentrating on defence they showed little sign of penetrating. Then Andriy Pyatov committed a shocking error, as bad as Edwin van der Sar's at the weekend, dropping Nasri's 19th-minute corner. Johan Djourou was first to react, poking the ball goalwards where Song scrambled it over the line. Not exactly out of the Arsenal playbook, but no one in red-and-white was complaining.

It seemed Arsenal were on their way but the frown was back on Wenger's face all too soon as Wilshere lunged into a late challenge on Tomas Hubschman for which he should have seen a yellow card. All those years developing the English Fabregas and it seems Wenger has instead produced another Billy Bremner.

In the wake of Wilshere's weekend dismissal the tackle was untimely but the midfielder was otherwise excellent again and Wenger said: "When you are in such a [publicity] storm it is easy to hide but he did not. He just played football like he meant it. He was a a fraction late but he went for the ball. That can happen. He is at a good technical level but he does not shirk challenges, that is a tremendous strength that you do not want him to lose."

Shakhtar's response to going behind was muted, a deflected shot over from Henrik Mkhitaryan five minutes before the break their best effort. If they were biding their time, waiting to pinch a goal on the break they were soon left with no alternative but to attack as Arsenal doubled their lead three minutes before the interval. Song, Fabregas and Emmanuel Eboué exchanged passes before Song crossed. Nasri expertly pulled the ball out of the air and away from Darijo Srna, before lashing it past Pyatov.

This time Shakhtar did respond and Luiz Adriano should have halved the deficit when sent clear immediately after the resumption, but he was smartly denied by Lukasz Fabianski. The save proved significant, by the time Shakhtar threatened again the tie was over. It was another collector's item; a decisive intervention by a fifth official. At an Arsenal set-piece Adriano was spotted hauling down Djourou. It was a daft piece of defending since the referee had lectured the Shakhtar defence immediately before. Fabregas thumped the spot-kick home, before running to the cameras to reveal an undershirt reading "Felicitats Mama" to mark the birthday, on Sunday, of his mother.

Arsenal were in party mood and the icing was soon added to the cake. Fabregas left to cheers, Eduardo arrived to even louder ones, and the goals kept flowing. The fourth and fifth, scored after 66 and 69 minutes, were quintessential Arsenal goals. First a sweeping one-touch passing move ended with Wilshere trading passes with Tomas Rosicky and dinking the ball over Pyatov. Then Nasri lifted a sublime chip over the by-now ragged back-four to an unmarked, onside, Chamakh. The Moroccan tucked the ball away to extend his startling Champions League scoring record: with Bordeaux and Arsenal he has scored in his last six matches, a competition record.

It was the perfect night for Arsenal fans. Wenger was able to give Theo Walcott, out since August, a gentle return from the bench, and there was even a somewhat bizarre fairy-tale ending as Eduardo struck from a stunning drive with eight minutes left. True to his word he did not celebrate, not many players would at 5-1 down. The Arsenal fans did it for him, applauding noisily. The sentiment was doubtless genuine, but it is not hard to be magnanimous at 5-1 up.

All in all it was the ideal preface to tomorrow's AGM. In recent years Wenger has faced some difficult questions about the club's trophy drought. It will be a very extremely demanding fan, ungrateful even, who complains this time.

Arsenal (4-1-2-3) Fabianski; Eboué, Squillaci, Djourou, Clichy; Song; Fabregas (Denilson, 62), Wilshere; Rosicky, Chamakh (Walcott,72), Nasri (Arshavin, 72). Unused Szczesny (gk), Diaby, Gibbs, Bendtner

Shakhtar Donetsk (4-2-3-1): Pyatov; Srna, Kucher, Rakitskiy, Rat; Gai (Jadson, 67), Hubschman; Alex Teixeira, Mkhitaryan, Willian (Douglas Costa, h-t); Luiz Adriano (Eduardo, 63).

Booked: Shakhtar Luiz Adriano, Hubschman.

Referee S O Moen (Norway).

Attendance 60,016.

Man of the match Nasri.