Highbury stronghold heartens Arsenal

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The Independent Football

As they headed for Prague airport on Tuesday night, their coach driving past a series of garages brazenly selling fuel of every type, Arsenal's players thought fondly of home, blockades notwithstanding.

As they headed for Prague airport on Tuesday night, their coach driving past a series of garages brazenly selling fuel of every type, Arsenal's players thought fondly of home, blockades notwithstanding.

The knowledge that their victory over Sparta Prague in the Letna stadium would be followed by two ties in their own Highbury backyard filled them with confidence. Instead of last year's Wembley defeats to Barcelona and Fiorentina in the Champions' League, the Gunners recalled the subsequent Uefa Cup victories over Nantes, Deportivo La Coruña, Werder Bremen and Lens at Highbury.

Arsenal, who were drawn at home first in every round, scored 13 goals in the four home legs, conceding three, and Martin Keown said: "None of the teams seemed to respond to Highbury the way the others had done to Wembley. You could see the difference it made when we switched back to Highbury last year."

Since losing 3-1 at home to Benfica in the 1991-92 European Cup, Arsenal have played 14 European ties at Highbury, winning nine, drawing four and losing once, to PAOK Salonika three seasons ago.

Arsenal's next match, against Shaktar Donetsk on Wednesday, should extend that impressive record, but the visit of Lazio seven days later will provide a sterner test. The Italian champions secured a convincing 3-0 win in Ukraine on Tuesday night, with Pavel Nedved, the Czech midfielder, outstanding and both Claudio Lopez and Simone Inzaghi also on the scoresheet.

With Sparta Prague playing in Rome next week, Arsenal and Lazio could be sharing the lead with a six-point cushion when they meet. However, with that match, followed by the return in Rome, and Prague simultaneously playing a back-to-back tie with Donetsk, Arsenal will need to take points from the competition favourites to ensure the Czech champions do not arrive at Highbury on 25 October with parity restored.

Sparta, who possessed the game's most influential player on Tuesday night in their sweeper Jiri Novotny, showed enough to suggest they could be dangerous opponents on any ground. Keown admitted that Arsenal "maybe got away with this one," but he added, "In previous years we have got off to a very good start in the Champions' League in terms of performance but not results. This time we did not play as well but we went that one step further and got a result.

"So far this season we have played well in games, deserved to get something and not got it. Maybe this one turned the other way, maybe we were due it. I'm not saying we didn't deserve it but we kept giving them opportunities to come back."

The difference between the sides was a moment of magic from Silvinho, Arsenal's Brazilian left-back, and Keown added: "We all missed Nigel [Winterburn] when he went but the transition has been seamless, Silvinho has just come in and taken up the role."

That Arsenal should win without Dennis Bergkamp, Tony Adams, Lauren and Ray Parlour augured well for a demanding season and Keown said: "The squad showed its strength in depth and that is going to be very important because we also want to be challenging for the Premiership."

That squad strength will be fully tested over the next few weeks. The Gunners, who host Coventry City on Saturday, are three matches into a run of eight games in 27 days, culminating in the visits of Lazio and Manchester United within four days. At present they are in sixth place in the Premiership, a win behind leaders United, who, noted Wenger, "have played an extra home match than us."

And home, as any Gooner will tell you, is where Arsenal's heart is. At least until they complete their move to a new ground.

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