Belfast Telegraph

Big guns await Arsenal

Arsenal 3 Partizan Belgrade 1: Arsenal could face Barcelona in a repeat of last year’s action packed quarter-final as the Gunners eased through to the knockout stage of the Champions League at the Emirates last night.

Now the big guns await Arsenal joy, but Wenger’s team are facing |hard road aheadKnockout blow: Man of the moment Samir Nasri sealed Arsenal’s progression with their third last night (left) while Robin van Persie (above) celebrated his first goal of the season after giving them the lead from the penalty spot

Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Schalke are their other potential opponents in the last 16 after they secured second place in Group H with a win over Partizan Belgrade.

Successive away defeats to Shakhtar Donetsk and Braga had left the Gunners — who opened their European campaign with three straight victories — still needing a result to secure safe passage through to the knockout stages for the 11th successive season.

After a lacklustre start, Robin van Persie fired the home side ahead from the penalty spot — his first goal of the season — and after Cleo had netted a shock equaliser, substitute Theo Walcott volleyed Arsenal back into the lead before Samir Nasri swept home a third.

“The pressure was on today,” Van Persie said.

“They played quite well. Partizan are a good side. They kept the ball quite well. We had to run a lot.”

Asked who he is hoping to play in the next round, Van Persie said: “As a football fan Barcelona or (Real) Madrid but we'll see what the draw will be.”

Gunners boss Arsene Wenger was pleased to see Van Persie improving as he continues his comeback from injury.

“It's important that he comes back to a good fitness level,” said Wenger.

“I think he became stronger and stronger during the game.”

Wenger conceded he was worried when Partizan pulled the game back to 1-1.

“When it was 1-1, you never know,” he said. “Football is mysterious sometimes. They got a deflected goal, they had not many chances.”

Arsenal finished the game with 10 men when defender Bacary Sagna was shown a red card for a professional foul on 85 minutes.

Van Persie, taking the captain's armband in the absence of the injured Cesc Fabregas, was deployed in a deeper role behind Marouane Chamakh, with Nasri out wide but with a license to roam.

On 15 minutes, full-back Kieran Gibbs turned his ankle badly and was taken off on a stretcher, but managed to return to the action only to eventually be replaced by Emmanuel Eboue.

As the half-hour mark approached, Arsenal — who travel to Manchester United on Monday night — were gifted the opening goal when Marko Jovanovic upended van Persie after Alex Song had burst into the Partizan penalty area. The Dutchman took the spot-kick himself to fire home his first goal since the final day of last season.

Given his current form, Nasri would have been expected to bury the ball when it dropped to him from van Persie's knockdown some 10 yards out at the start of the second half — but the French midfielder fired his shot high over the bar.

Arsenal's defensive frailties were exposed again when Partizan scored a shock equaliser on 52 minutes.

The ball was worked down the left and then through to Cleo,

some 20 yards out. He was given the space to turn and fire a shot goalwards, which deflected off the lunging Sebastien Squillaci and looped over Lukasz Fabianski.

With 24 minutes left, Wenger looked to inject fresh life into the attack as he sent on Walcott, replacing the ineffective Andrey Arshavin.

The England winger was blocked on the edge of the area by Krstajic, which earned the Partizan skipper a yellow card. Nasri whipped the free-kick over the wall, with Stojkovic making a fingertip save.

The keeper, though, could do little as, on 73 minutes, Walcott lobbed the ball into the far corner after it fell to him on the right side of the area.

Chamakh was replaced by Nicklas Bendtner and the Dane had a hand in Arsenal's third after a neat exchange of passes with Song on the edge of the area fed Nasri — and the Frenchman sidestepped his marker as he swept the ball into the far corner to settle Arsenal nerves.

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