Johan Djourou described the atmosphere inside the Stadion FK Partizan as "scary" and "amazing", admitting he had never experienced anything like it. So for Arsenal FC to come through that furnace with a 3-1 victory said a great deal about their ability to cope when the pressure is uppermost along the UEFA Champions League road.
The FK Partizan fans hardly relented with their wall of incessant noise from start to finish, and when Andrey Arshavin missed a penalty which would have given the Gunners a 2-1 lead midway through the second half, the decibel levels rose again to urge a team, now down to ten men following Marko Jovanović's dismissal, to defy the odds.
But it was Arsène Wenger's charges who had the decisive say, as Marouane Chamakh and Sébastien Squillaci climbed for two scoring headers that established Arsenal's undoubted superiority and ensured they top Group H along with FC Shakhtar Donetsk, with two wins out of two. "It's best to start sooner rather than later," said Djourou about the need to get points on the board, "so it's good we have started with two wins. We knew we had to come to places like Belgrade and also Donetsk and we knew we would come under pressure."
The Swiss international defender had passed his first UEFA Champions League examination since the semi-final with Manchester United FC in May 2009. Knee ligament surgery kept him out for virtually all last season but he was delighted to return and contribute to a fine victory. "We started well and made it difficult for them but they came back at us and got an equaliser," he said. "I was surprised at Partizan's quality. They are a good team with good players. At 1-1 it could have been a difficult finish but in the end we were able to destroy them. The atmosphere was scary, amazing. I have never known anything like it."
The loss of defender Jovanović, who received a red card for fouling Chamakh when he was through on goal, was an obvious factor in Arsenal's ability to finish with a two-goal margin. That and the fact that with six minutes remaining Cléo emulated Arshavin by failing to score from the spot, Łukasz Fabiański making a good save.
"The goalkeeper was waiting for my reaction and stopped my shot," explained Cléo, who, in a game of three spot kicks, had successfully converted his first attempt just past the half-hour to cancel out Arshavin's early goal. "It was not a bad shot but it was a perfect reaction from the keeper," the 25-year-old Brazilian striker added. "It was very hard for us to play with ten men because Arsenal are a fantastic team."
Home goalkeeper Vladimir Stojković rivalled Arshavin for man-of-the-match honours with a string of important saves, including the penalty stop. "That was my present to Marko [Jovanović]," said the Serbian international. "When you are playing Arsenal you never know where the ball will end up and it is difficult to see it when they are passing so quickly." After starting with two defeats, Partizan have it all to do if they are to qualify for the knockout rounds. "We will do our best to stay in the UEFA competitions after the group stage," Stojković said.
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