Fabregas scores twice as Arsenal thrash AZ

Arsenal 4 AZ Alkmaar 1
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The Independent Football

Arsenal all but secured their place in the last 16 of the Champions League after taking apart AZ Alkmaar 4-1 at Emirates Stadium.

Victory for Standard Liege over Olympiacos means, mathematically, Arsene Wenger's side could yet be overtaken for the top two places in Group H.

However, if the way in which the Dutch champions were outclassed tonight, helped by a brace from captain Cesc Fabregas, is any evidence, then Arsenal's status as genuine challengers for the European crown will be confirmed when the Belgians travel to north London in two weeks.

Arsenal, who are now unbeaten in 12 games, were always in control, Fabregas setting them on their way after 25 minutes, before Samir Nasri made it 2-0 on the stroke of half-time with the Gunners captain and then Abou Diaby putting the result beyond doubt.

Jeremain Lens netted a consolation for the visitors, who now face a battle to finish third and go into the Europa League.

AZ boss Ronald Koeman - whose goal won the 1992 European Cup for Barcelona at Wembley - had previously been unbeaten against Wenger, masterminding a 1-1 draw here with PSV in 2007, which knocked the English side out.

However, there was to be no repeat as the Gunners immediately went on the attack.

Robin van Persie cut in from the right and flashed a low strike across goal.

Referee Alain Hamer, kitted out in white, then penalised goalkeeper Sergio Ranero for picking up a backpass from midfield, giving Arsenal an indirect free-kick on the right corner of the six-yard box.

Van Persie, though, smashed his shot into the wall of black shirts at the near post.

With Emmanuel Eboue preferred at right-back to Bacary Sagna, the Gunners were certainly more offensive down the flanks, if without lacking any real bite in the final third.

Arsenal were then gifted the lead on 25 minutes.

A quick break down the left freed Fabregas on the edge of the penalty area.

The Gunners captain was given space to drive the ball through David Mendes da Silva's legs, and as Ranero completely mistimed his dive, it somehow crept inside the far post.

The home side continued to press, and Fabregas was somewhat unfortunate to head over after a deep cross from left-back Kieran Gibbs, in for the injured Gael Clichy, at the end of another swift counter.

The Gunners doubled their lead just before half-time.

Andrey Arshavin fed Nasri down the middle.

The Frenchman, now fit again following a fractured leg suffered during pre-season, turned Hector Moreno inside out to burst into the penalty area, before dispatching a low effort into the bottom right corner on 43 minutes.

Before AZ could regroup at the start of the second half, Arsenal were out of sight after scoring a third goal on 52 minutes.

The visitors gave away possession in midfield, and it proved fatal as Arshavin sprinted towards the penalty area, before slipping in Fabregas, who fired the ball past Romero.

To their credit, though, AZ kept going.

Indeed but for a fine reaction block from Manuel Almunia, the visitors would have pulled a goal back.

Graziano Pelle chested down a cross from Maarten Martens before firing the ball in at point-blank range which Almunia, looking to cement his place as number one again, instinctively pushed up on to the crossbar.

Wenger made a double change with 24 minutes left, replacing Fabregas with Aaron Ramsey, while Eduardo came on for Van Persie.

Gibbs came close to netting his first Arsenal goal when driving the ball just wide from the edge of the penalty box.

It was 4-0 on 72 minutes following another flowing counter-attack.

A clever back-heel from Eduardo released Arshavin down the right.

The Russian took the ball on into the area, before squaring to Diaby, who made no mistake from 12 yards.

Arsenal had what looked a decent shout for handball against Pelle turned down before AZ broke quickly and scored a consolation when Lens held off Gibbs to fire past Almunia.

There was still time for Ramsey to hit the bar, but the hard work had already been done.