Wilshere comes of age for rampant Arsenal but tougher tasks await
Arsenal 6 Braga 0
It is the Arsenal way that every so often they give us a reminder of how the game can be played at its refined, breathless best and then, as recent history tells us, they go and spoil it all by folding in the big games of the season.
Last night was one of those occasions when it is a privilege to be at the Emirates and, given the pivotal role of Jack Wilshere to the proceedings, more than encouraging from the perspective of Fabio Capello's England team. Of course, Braga are no Barcelona and they are no Chelsea but they are still a serious team in a decent league who, by the end of this game, had to be scraped off the floor.
This is the time of year when the leaves are still on the trees, the clocks have not yet gone back and Arsenal fans wonder whether it might be them who will be the champions of England or even Europe. Precedent suggests it would be foolish to get carried away but if this is to be Cesc Fabregas's last season at the club then his two goals last night suggested it could be a vintage one.
Blackpool, Blackburn, Bolton, Braga – since they drew at Anfield on the first day of the season, Arsenal have eviscerated their last four opponents, scoring 18 goals. Tottenham in the Carling Cup on Tuesday will be an interesting warm-up but we will not get the measure of this team until they go to Chelsea on 3 October. In the meantime, the rehearsals are going nicely.
It was Fabregas who dominated last night, setting his team on their way with a penalty on nine minutes and from then on Arsenal did not spare their opponents. Fabregas scored a second, Andrei Arshavin and Marouane Chamakh added one each, and the substitute Carlos Vela finished it off with two late goals. All that and Fabregas still castigated his team-mates for easing up.
There was no goal for Wilshere but he was nicely assured in the centre and played a crucial role in Chamakh's goal and Vela's first. The 18-year-old is not yet at the level of the Arsenal captain but it is not hard to imagine that he could be one day. For a kid who plays some joyful football, he does not smile much.
Braga could have approached this game as Rangers did when they visited Old Trafford on Tuesday and nailed the figurative planks of wood across the doorway. Instead, they lined up in a 4-4-2 formation and decided to give it a go. Naive? Certainly, but another dose of Rangers' park-the-bus approach would have been unbearable.
Second in the Portuguese league last season, Braga's mistake was trying to play Arsenal at their own game, which is fatal unless you happen to be Barcelona. For a brief period in the first half, Braga and their quick winger, who goes under the gloriously unglamorous moniker of Alan, looked dangerous. The problem is they have never played in the Champions League before, and it showed last night.
Against a stretched Braga defence, Arsenal found holes in their opponents that United never did against Rangers. While the Scottish champions strained every sinew to close down their opponents and defended very deep, Braga did the opposite. They resolved to blow it all on a gamble that they might just match Arsenal punch for punch.
The Portuguese did not have a happy start when, in the first four minutes, Fabregas twice opened them up. The first time he was fouled on the very edge of the area by Paulo Cesar and was inexplicably not given a free-kick. The second time only a tackle from the defender Moises stopped him. The third time Braga were not so fortunate.
They were unzipped down the middle: Wilshere to Fabregas, Fabregas to Chamakh. He nicked the ball past the diving goalkeeper and just about everyone in the stadium knew the Arsenal striker was just waiting to tumble over Felipe's hands. With nine minutes on the clock, Fabregas put the ball past Felipe from the penalty spot.
It should be pointed out that Braga did have a decent spell around the 15-minute mark, although it passed as soon as it came. Alan demonstrated one burning turn of pace down the wing. Paulo Cesar had a decent shot and then normal business was resumed.
On 30 minutes Fabregas shaped to go right, changed his mind and, outside the area, beat Hugo Viana and Moises before playing in Arshavin on the left side. He scored at the near post for Arsenal's second goal. The third goal was a beauty. Wilshere into Fabregas and onto Chamakh who got it back off Wilshere again – a cheeky back heel no less – before beating Felipe.
A fortunate ricochet in the box allowed Fabregas to nick possession on 54 minutes, square the ball to Arshavin and pick his spot with the header when the cross came in. He came close to a hat-trick, the glove of Felipe and a clearance off the line stopped him. Arshavin hit the post. Vela's two late goals were laid on first by Wilshere and then Fabregas, who had run the show all night.
By then, some of the Arsenal support were suggesting Arsène Wenger's assistant Pat Rice might be worth a late run-out. That was harsh on Braga. They are not a bad team; last night it was their misfortune to come up against a brilliant one.
Arsenal 4-3-3: Almunia; Sagna, Koscielny, Squillaci, Clichy; Fabregas, Song (Denilson, 63), Wilshere; Nasri, Chamakh (Vela, 63), Arshavin (Eboué, 69). Substitutes not used Fabianski (gk), Rosicky, Djourou, Gibbs.
Braga (4-4-2): Felipe; Garcia, Rodriguez, Moises, Silvio; Alan, Vandinho, Viana (Mossoro, 53), Cesar (Barbosa, 69); Aguiar, Matheus (Lima, 59). Substitutes not used Artur (gk), Paulao, Madrid, Elton.
Man of the match Fabregas.
Referee A Hamer.
Match rating 8/10.
Had a nice and easy time in goal. The much-maligned keeper was largely untroubled and handled a couple of dangerous low crosses well 7
Although his natural attacking instincts were tempered by having a direct opponent, did his main job. Yellow card for one wild tackle 6
Still adjusting to new central defensive partner in Squillaci as well as new team but looking better after a poor game at Blackburn 7
Looked solid in only his second appearance for Arsenal, deputising for Thomas Vermaelen. Can be useful at set pieces too 7
Up against a speedy wide man in Alan, but generally had the better of him throughout. Like Sagna, would probably have liked to go forward more 7
Sat back most of the time to good effect, no doubt bursting to join the fun further forward. Unable to resist it once or twice 7
Willing and able to push forward while Song held the fort, which he did with great elan. Lovely back-heeled effort for third goal 8
A masterclass from a master craftsman. Even headed a goal and deserved the hat-trick he was denied by goalmouth clearance 9
Worked hard down the right and later the left on his return while being outshone by the pyrotechnics of Fabregas and Wilshere 6
The sort of game he enjoys against opponents who allow time and space. Good finish to score, made two others and hit post too 8
Third goal in four starts, well taken, will keep the Moroccan's confidence flowing in settling-in period at the club. Substituted 7
Denilson for Song, 63
Took over holding role from Song without any loss of efficiency 6
Vela for Chamakh, 63
Took second and third neat goals in five days 7
Eboué for Arshavin, 69
A couple of good surges forward towards the end 6
Not used Fabianski, Rosicky, Denilson, Djourou, Gibbs
Results so far: Arsenal 6 Braga 0; FK Shakhtar Donetsk 1 Partizan 0.
Arsenal's remaining fixtures: 28 Sep FK Partizan (a); 19 Oct Shakhtar Donetsk (h); 3 Nov Shakhtar Donetsk (a); 23 Nov Braga (a); 8 Dec FK Partizan (h).
* Dario Srna's second-half free-kick gave Shakhtar Donetsk a deserved victory over Partizan in Ukraine. Shakhtar dominated the game and squandered a number of chances before Srna drove home a 30-yard free kick in the 71st minute.
Vladimir Stojkovic made a number of good saves for Partizan as Shakhtar's Brazilian imports caught the eye in the Donbass Arena. In the 28th minute Srna fired a cross into the area and Luis Adriano's shot was well parried by Stojkovic. After the break Jadson was put through on goal in the 55th minute but his shot was blocked by Stojkovic. Adriano's header was then superbly tipped over by the keeper who was finally beaten by Srna's powerful free-kick into the bottom corner.
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