Belfast Telegraph

Arsenal are perfect proponents of the beautiful game

By Frank Malley

There are certain teams who remind you why football is the most popular and most compelling sport on Earth.

Arsenal are such a team.

No, the Gunners were not quite at their best in their 5-0 victory against Porto (6-2 on aggregate) which saw them progress to the quarter finals of the Champions League.

There were too many dodgy defensive moments, too much sloppy play, too much indecision from such as Sol Campbell. But it would be churlish to dwell on the negatives when their football is full of so much that is pleasing to the eye.

High tempo. Pretty patterns. Zippy one-twos. The exhilarating vision of Andrey Arshavin. An Arsene Wenger philosophy which means they are prepared to fail in order to win.

And a second half goal from Samir Nasri which had the twisting, turning balance of a slalom skier and the finish of an executioner.

All that and we have to still to mention what perhaps will have delighted Arsene Wenger the most, the clinical finishing of Nicklas Bendtner who slotted home an added-time penalty for the first hat-trick of his career. And, to think, he could not have hit the north stand of the Emirates from 10 yards against Burnley on Saturday.

Heaven knows, the one thing Arsenal have missed this season, with the absence of the injured Robin van Persie, was an out-and-out striker. Someone to stick away those tap-ins.

It is safe to say Bendtner, who has also missed more than three months through injury, is neither a shy, nor a conventional character.

At the start of the season he changed his squad number from 26 to 52, which he maintained had a special significance for him. He also offered to refund anyone who had bought a shirt bearing his old number.

Buoyed by the change he then boasted he would be top scorer in the Premier League, top scorer at the World Cup and "among the best strikers in the world" within five years.

"Trust me, it will happen," he insisted.

Who knows, maybe he is right. He is only 22 and against Porto demonstrated the sort of consistent striking performance which has not often been the case since he joined the Gunners as a youth player in 2004.

It resulted in two first half goals, both comfortably dispatched, in a match which saw Arsenal cruising with a 2-0 scoreline on the night at half-time.

Cue a case of creeping anxiety. At least for a quarter of an hour after the interval when Porto had a go and the faithful at the Emirates were just a shade troubled.

It called for something special to settle the nerves and Nasri's mesmerising solo goal supplied it.

When Emmanuel Eboue added a fourth with a counter-attack breathtaking in its speed it was all over. All that without both the injured William Gallas and the playmaking talents of captain Cesc Fabregas.

And that is why Arsenal's season, one in which they have lost at home to Manchester United and Chelsea in the Premier League, one in which they have given the doubters much ammunition, suddenly is brimming with promise.

Joint second with Chelsea in a Premier League which now looks eminently winnable. In the last eight of the Champions League in which they reached the final four years ago.

Of course, we should not get too far ahead of ourselves. Porto are a notch below the best in the English league. And the opposition to come, you can guarantee, will be wilier and steelier. Better teams will take advantage of Arsenal's flaws.

But there is a swagger to Arsenal in this mood which is close on irresistible.

Something which reminds you, even in this season of sleaze and endless controversy, why football is the most treasured game of all.

Belfast Telegraph

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