Arsenal stroll into last 16
Arsene Wenger got the response he demanded as Arsenal secured a place in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League with a 2-0 win over Standard Liege at Emirates Stadium. The Gunners boss had called for his side to raise their game in the wake of a lacklustre defeat at Sunderland - and his pre-match rallying call had also included reminding Arsenal's 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ hopefuls of just who pays their wages.
Even without injured Netherlands forward Robin van Persie, the English Premier League side - who host leaders Chelsea on Sunday - had too much class for the Belgians. First-half goals from Samir Nasri and Denilson, smashing in a 30-yard strike, set the Gunners on their way to the knockout stages of Europe's elite club competition for the tenth campaign in succession as they won Group H with a match to spare.
"It's really good for the team because we still have a game to go and we can relax a little and give some rest to some players, and make sure that some of the players who don't play too much can get a game," said the Arsenal captain, Cesc Fabregas.
Standard coach Laszlo Boloni, whose side can still reach the last 16 if they beat AZ Alkmaar at home in their final match and Olympiakos lose to Arsenal, was irritated by the errors that contributed to both goals. "We had injuries to contend with and a high quality opponent so, with that in mind, we could not gift away goals and that is what we did. That was very frustrating. If Arsenal had played great one-touch football to score, fair enough; but the way they scored the two goals was not normal. The players are responsible for that and they can do a lot better."
The tone had been set from kick-off as Arsenal started brightly with a string of quick-passing moves. Nasri cut a pass back rather than shoot when played into the right side of the Standard penalty area after five minutes.
Arsenal then somehow failed to put the ball in the net during a goalmouth scramble following a corner. First, Andrey Arshavin's header was saved by Sinan Bolat, with Mexico teenager Carlos Vela, deployed as the central striker, lashing the rebound against the post. The Standard keeper then twice denied William Gallas' follow-up before Thomas Vermaelen drilled his shot towards the top corner - only for the ball to cannon off Arshavin on the goalline.
The travelling Standard fans had seen little to cheer about during the opening 20 minutes, but were almost celebrating when Congo striker Dieudonne Mbokani rattled the angle after cutting inside from the edge of the Arsenal area.
Arsenal were, though, soon back in the ascendancy. Arshavin headed over, and in the process, collided with Gallas, which left both men needing treatment and Arsenal temporarily down to nine men. Gallas came back on nursing a cut to his eye, while Arshavin needed some staples to close up a bloody gash on the top of his head.
As the Russian jogged back along the near touchline, Arsenal took the lead on 35 minutes. Vermaelen's long ball was missed by Landry Mulemo after the defender slipped on the edge of the penalty area, which allowed Nasri in, and he made no mistake, lashing a half-volley past Bolat.
Arshavin almost doubled the lead when his first-time shot from the edge of the box flew only inches wide. There was, on 39 minutes, an almighty let-off for Arsenal when Gallas appeared to bundle over Reginal Goreux as he dashed into the penalty area - but the referee waved play on.
Centenary party for Denilson
In first-half stoppage time, Denilson - just returning from a back injury - crashed home a second goal from 30 yards, the ball swerving through the air as it flew over Bolat to give the young Brazilian something to remember in his 100th Arsenal appearance.
Standard midfielder Axel Witsel - who has served a lengthy ban following an tackle which left Anderlecht's Marcin Wasilewski with a broken leg - collected a quick free-kick on his chest, but, just four yards out, could not guide the ball past Manuel Almunia.
On the hour, Nasri made way as Wenger introduced Theo Walcott, the England forward hoping to keep fit for the rest of the campaign as he targets a place in Fabio Capello's South Africa 2010 squad. The youngster almost had an instant impact when he drove a low shot across goal from a tight angle.
Standard substitute Gohi Bi Cyriac struck the base of the post, before the visitors were reduced to ten men when Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez pushed his forehead into the face of Arsenal skipper Cesc Fabregas, who creditably did not go down, and was shown a straight red card. Arsenal created chances to add a third through Eboue and Alex Song, but had already done enough to make sure of safe progress ahead of next month's trip to Olympiacos.