Sparta Prague 0 Arsenal 2: Gunners put one foot through qualifying door
For the most part, the banner which read "Fans Turnov" – although a tribute to a branch of the Sparta Prague supporters club – had it about right. This was a turn-off.
Arsenal huffed and puffed against limited opponents, and were indebted to the boot of Jens Lehmann for preserving parity, a golden boot given what was at stake, before two late goals not only won the contest but, effectively, the tie.
"Two nil is not qualified but the second goal is certainly a mental blow for them," said manager Arsene Wenger before he conceded that "possibly" the scoreline was flattering. It means that Arsenal will progress into the lucrative group stages of the Champions League and although anything else was unthinkable for Wenger's side, they made it an arduous ordeal.
In the end a fine strike by Cesc Fabregas, and a late, scuffed goal by Alexander Hleb, garnered victory. Fabregas, the prodigiously talented young midfielder, performed the same feat in this round of the competition last year. But it was also at this stadium two seasons ago that Thierry Henry hit the goals that made him Arsenal's most prolific goalscorer.
It's perhaps apt then that Fabregas, who yearns to take Henry's mantle as talisman, contributed last night. He also crocked Tomas Repka, that combative old warhorse and former West Ham defender, who sought a running feud with Arsenal after apparently telling Czech television beforehand that he would "sort them out". Fabregas earned boos from the home fans thereafter, and stoked it further by ridiculing Repka's hobbling, although there was never any threat of the racist abuse that has marred Sparta's recent history.
Instead, there was some physical intimidation from the Czech champions, especially in a committed opening half which added heat to an already balmy evening. Fortunately for Arsenal, their big players – quite literally in terms of physique – rose to the challenge with powerful displays by Kolo Toure and, especially, captain William Gallas. "It was a very physical game. Sparta played with a total commitment," Wenger said. "We needed to be patient, not make a mistake and we were lucky when they hit the post."
That incident could have made the game so different. Instead, when Jan Rezek met an angled cross by Pavel Horvath fully on the volley, after stealing inside Gael Clichy, Lehmann reacted instinctively to deflect the ball onto the post. It was a sweet redemption for the German after his opening minute blunder at home to Fulham on Sunday and as Arsenal went on to win that game, Wenger kept an unchanged team.
In truth that was through expediency as injury has left him short of strikers. It showed. Too often Robin van Persie was isolated, too often Hleb appeared a peripheral, lightweight presence instead of his main support.
Eventually, though, Arsenal worked their way into the encounter. Van Persie twisted and turned and went close and suddenly an attacking impetus was found. Clichy, who had endured a torrid evening, seized on a loose pass, danced through two challenges and teed up Fabregas. The 20-year-old instantly slammed a low shot from just inside the area beyond the goalkeeper's dive. Sparta pushed on, searching for an equalising goal and fervently appealing for a penalty. It didn't come but a panicky scramble inside the Arsenal area did. Eventually, Gallas mopped up and Bakary Sagna, a forceful presence, broke away and released Hleb. He stumbled but managed to roll the ball into the empty net.
Sparta Prague (4-4-2): Postulka; Pospech, Kadlec, Repka, Kladrubsky; Abraham, Husek, Horvath (Limbersky, 87), Rezek (Matusovic, 59); Kulic, Dosek. Substitutes not used: Kozacyk (gk), Slepicka, Kisel, Brezinsky, Zofcak.
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Lehmann; Sagna, Gallas, Touré, Clichy; Eboué, Flamini, Fabregas, Rosicky (Song, 80); Hleb; Van Persie. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Senderos, Bendtner, Traoré, Hoyte, Walcott.
Referee: L Cantalejo (Spain).