Van Persie and Henry fire Arsenal to knock-out stage

Arsenal 3 Sparta Prague 0
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The Independent Football

A beguiled Sparta Prague certainly could not. The withering look with which Henry fixed their coach Stanislav Griga, after the peerless striker had evaded another spiteful attempted challenge, said it all. As did the goal which secured Arsenal's early progress from Group B with four wins from four ties and, momentarily at least, superceded the childish feud between Arsène Wenger and Jose Mourinho.

There was even time for a vibrant cameo from Henry's replacement, Robin van Persie, who scored twice in the dying minutes and almost finished with a hat-trick, while Jose Antonio Reyes' determined pace impressed and Robert Pires appeared revitalised.

Van Persie, whose rapid improvements are now making a valid case for him to be a starter - "he's making big steps forward," the manager acknowledged - was not the only Dutchman who could have taken the match ball. Three times Dennis Bergkamp spurned inviting first-half opportunities, but Henry then showed the way.

He could have played last Saturday against Tottenham Hotspur but was given the extra rest his knee needed to nurse him through an hour last night. And mid-way through that period he finished off a move of rare accomplishment, unerringly curling his shot in from 25 yards, after he ran onto Reyes' clever flick.

Often after injury-induced absences Henry appears a man possessed and the same was true here. "He has such a hunger," Wenger said. "His focus is great."

Sparta's defeat was their 11th in a row away from home in this competition but Manuel Almunia, in the Arsenal goal with Jens Lehmann suffering from a stiff back, had to be alert to finger-tip the ball away from Lukas Zelenka and then the Spaniard beat away a fierce drive from Martin Hasek.

Despite Arsenal's attacking vibrancy, they were dangerously lax in defence with Miroslav Matusovic skying a half-chance over. Arsenal also continued to be wasteful with Pires and Bergkamp blazing over after Henry was withdrawn as a precaution.

With just nine minutes to go, Van Persie provided the comfort of a second goal. Initially he had appeared to have wasted the chance, with what Wenger described as a poor first touch from Bergkamp's pass, but the 22-year-old shifted the ball across his body, made space and looped his left-footed shot into the net.

The worth of that cushion was immediately highlighted as Sparta struck the bar from Petr Lukas's header, before Van Persie intervened again, rolling a low shot in to allow Arsenal the honour of being the first English club to progress in the Champions' League this season.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Lauren, Campbell, Touré, Clichy; Pires (Fabregas, 73), Flamini, Gilberto, Reyes (Eboué, 82); Bergkamp, Henry (Van Persie, 66). Substitutes not used: Poom (gk), Song, Cygan, Senderos.

Sparta Prague (4-1-4-1): Blazek; Pergl, Petrous (Jeslinek, 80), Lukas, Kadlec; Petras; Pospech, Zelenka, Hasek, Polacek (Slepicka, 59); Matusovic. Substitutes not used: Grigar (gk), Dosek, Herzan, Loucka.

Referee: A Sars (France).

l In Group C, Barcelona swept Panathinaikos aside, Samuel Eto'o netting a hat-trick in a 5-0 win in the Nou Camp, while Werder Bremen beat Udinese 4-3. In Group A, David Trezeguet scored twice and Zlatan Ibrahimovic was sent off as Juventus edged out Bayern Munich 2-1 in Turin.