LONDON - Arsenal got the job done in the
end but Arsene Wenger's men will have to improve in the
Champions League knockout round in February when the cream of
Spain or Germany await.
A 3-1 victory over a spirited Partizan Belgrade side on
Wednesday confirmed Arsenal's place in the last 16 for an 11th
successive season under the Frenchman, but only as runners-up in
Group H to Shakhtar Donetsk.
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The formula for this month's draw means Arsenal will face
Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Schalke when the
competition resumes in February.
"All I know is we have a 50 percent chance to travel to
Spain and a 50 percent chance to travel to Germany," a relieved
Wenger told reporters after watching his side labour to beat the
Serbian champions who finished bottom with no points.
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"Let's be realistic Barcelona are the super favourites in
the competition at the moment, but we will take what we get and
if it's Barcelona it's Barcelona. We played them last year.
"Overall we are in a good position. We are in a strong
position in the Premier League, we are in the semi-final of the
League Cup and we've qualified in the Champions League.
"We have some very exciting challenges in front of us but we
have room for improvement and I'm confident we will improve,"
added Wenger, whose team were joint top scorers in the group
phase with North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
The Premier League leaders produced little of the vibrant
attacking football that resulted in 6-0 and 5-1 home thrashings
of Braga and Shakhtar Donetsk respectively and appeared nervous
after successive away defeats to the same opponents had delayed
their arrival in the business end of the tournament.
A defeat and a win for Braga on Wednesday over Shakhtar
would have put the English team out.
With nothing to play for but pride, Partizan produced some
attractive football at times and even when Robin van Persie
scored with a harshly-awarded penalty after 30 minutes - his
first club goal since may - Arsenal were off-key.
With injured skipper Cesc Fabregas wrapped up against the
bone-chilling cold in the stands, Arsenal badly missed his
playmaking talents and often look flustered.
Partizan doubled their goal tally in the group after 52
minutes when Brazilian Cleo was allowed far too much room on the
edge of the area and his shot flicked off the out-stretched leg
of Sebastien Squillaci and beyond Lukasz Fabianski.
The merry band of Partizan fans celebrated wildly as the
rest of the crowd in the Emirates Stadium began to contemplate
the possibility that Arsenal could be eliminated.
It made for an anxious 20 minutes before substitute Theo
Walcott showed a poacher's eye to control a high ball in an
instant and rifle a volley past Vladimir Stojkovic in the
Samir Nasri wrapped up victory four minutes later although
there was still time for right back Bacary Sagna to further
complicate Arsenal's Champions League future when he was shown a
red card for a trip on Aleksandar Lazevski late on.
With left-back Kieran Gibbs leaving the ground on crutches
after twisting his ankle in the first half, there was much to
ponder for Wenger, especially with a league fixture against
Manchester United on Monday.
"You can't try to compare tonight's game with how we would
play against Barca or Real Madrid," Wenger said.
"All I know is that we have qualified and now let's try to
go further. Tonight we were not at our best but we are still in
the competition. Our attacking play was not at its best but
maybe that's down to the quality of Partizan's defending.
"Hopefully we will have a high level of confidence by the
time we play in the last 16 and all our best players available.
The last 16 becomes a proper cup competition and that means for
180 minutes you have to be at your best."
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