Gunners Cruise Into CL Group Stage

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Arsenal continued its strong start to the season, defeating Celtic 3-1 at the Emirates on Wednesday to capture its Champions League qualifier and advance (5-1, on aggregate) to the competition’s group stage.

Coming into the Celtic match with a two-goal advantage thanks to some fortunate bounces in last week’s away leg at Parkhead, Arsenal benefitted this time from a questionable penalty awarded when Eduardo went down in the box just before the half hour.

Judged to be brought down on the play by Celtic keeper Artur Boruc, Eduardo seemed rather to tumble to the turf without much contact at all. With the decision, the Croatian then calmy converted from the spot to score the game’s first goal and put the Gunners three-up on the aggregate scoreboard.

Eduardo’s actions have received much criticism since the incident, and my thoughts on the matter mirror those of the famed Arseblog, who made this succint statement in his blog today: “I’m not trying to excuse him or justify it but a little perspective is needed. Eduardo’s dive was not his finest moment but in the grand scheme of things it meant little and he does not deserve the kind of vilification he’s received from some quarters.”

While the SkySports commentators and some media reports focused more on the dubious penalty, it was Arsenal’s fluid passing game and collective movement that again was the difference versus Celtic, with the home side able to open up their opponents’ defense seemingly at will.

Second-half goals from Emmanuel Eboue — who was this writer’s “man of the match” — and substitute Andrey Arshavin put the European tie out of reach for the Scottish visitors, who again looked a determined side but couldn’t create many quality chances on goal.

Celtic did pull back a goal in injury time, when Massimo Donati brilliantly volleyed past Manuel Almunia. But that offered only slight consolation for their manager Tony Mowbray, who commented after the match that his team wouldn’t play a side in Europe as good as Arsenal again this season.

Arsene Wenger said afterwards β€œthat in the two games Celtic were well organised and showed some great mental qualities. They never gave up at any moment, and for me, they are a good side. They were always one behind the score and when there is a technical difference between the two sides, it makes it even harder.

“We are now in the top, top league in Europe, with all the big names,” continued the Arsenal manager in his post-match press conference. “Somebody told me our team tonight had an average age of 23.9 years. That means if we can get out of the group stage, then in six months we can be even stronger.

“That is what we want to focus on, to continue to improve our team play, the speed of our game and show that we have made big improvements come Saturday (at Manchester United),” added Wenger. “We are orgainised and structured to go forward. The price we pay is sometimes we concede as well, but as long as we score, we do not worry too much.”

In just a couple of hours, Arsenal will find out the three European teams drawn into the same group with them for the opening phase of this season’s Champions League.

The Gunners — along with such notable teams as Barcelona, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Sevilla and the three other Premiership sides qualified for Europe’s top club competition (Man United, Liverpool and Chelsea) — are all included among the eight teams seeded within Pot 1 of the 32-team draw, meaning Arsenal would avoid facing any of those listed above until the knockout rounds of the competition.

*** UPDATE TO POST: Arsenal have been drawn into Group H for this season’s Champions League. The Gunners are top seed in the group, joined by Dutch side AZ Alkmaar, Olympiakos of Greece and Belgian club Standard Liege. ***

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