Wenger: This is the first step
Arsene Wenger has expressed delight and relief following his Arsenal side's last-gasp win over Dynamo Kiev in the UEFA Champions League. The Gunners qualified from Group G with a match to spare thanks to Nicklas Bendtner's late goal at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday.
But after three defeats in four matches, the storm of controversy generated by William Gallas's rant against his team-mates and the France defender's subsequent replacement as captain by Cesc Fabregas, Wenger was more concerned with the positive effect on the team's morale.
With Dynamo just three minutes from holding on for a point that would have left Arsenal without a goal for three games and looking as bereft of inspiration as they ever have under Wenger, Fabregas launched a sublime pass to Bendtner, who lashed his shot past Stanislav Bogush. As Wenger celebrated the goal, he saw not only a chance for Arsenal to extend their European campaign, but a cathartic moment for his players.
"It is the first step for us. What the team needs is reassurance and at least we have that now," he said. "We left it late and we were more steady than spectacular, but it was important to come back and win. Nicklas scored a great goal. It was not handball as Kiev claimed. You can watch it on the replay. It was a fantastic ball from Fabregas, good composure and a good finish. I am very happy for him because I felt he had showed a lack of confidence recently."
Wenger's decision to restore Gallas to the starting line-up so soon after his outburst was just about vindicated despite some shaky moments from the France defender. More significantly, Fabregas made a positive impression in his first game as skipper.
"Cesc was very good for me. He was focused for 90 minutes, worked hard defensively and offensively. It wasn't easy in midfield. Overall he had a very good game. William's focus was great. He wanted to do well and you could see he was completely committed. I was very happy that the fans responded in a positive way to him."
Now that Arsenal's progress is assured, Wenger will turn his attention to hauling his side back into the Premier League title race. It would take a remarkable run of results to make up the ten-point deficit to leaders Chelsea, but the Gunners have the perfect chance to put a dent into that gap when they travel to Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Wenger is keeping his fingers crossed that he can take a more experienced team across London than the youthful eleven that eventually saw off Dynamo. He said: "Before the Dynamo game we had nine injured players. We have three, Sagna, Nasri and Adebayor, who we hope will play on Sunday. All three are 50-50."
Judging by this display, Wenger will need all the options he can get to win at the Bridge. Gallas's woeful week nearly took a turn for the worse when his under-hit backpass let in Ismael Bangoura, but he could breathe again as the striker's effort cannoned back off the near post. And Gallas was the fall guy again early in the second half, when Robin van Persie's shot appeared to be creeping in until Gallas inadvertently blocked it.
Just as Arsenal looked to have run out of ideas, Fabregas provided the moment of inspiration they had been lacking with a superb long pass that picked out Bendtner and allowed the substitute to gallop clear and break the deadlock.
That triggered a Dynamo meltdown, and Olexandr Aliyev was sent off after shoving referee Alain Hamer while trying to take a quick free-kick. "We were more or less equal with Arsenal and we played well, but the result is what counts," Dynamo coach Yuri Semin said.