Champions League round of 16: Arsenal 5 Porto 0 (6-2 aggregate)
Football, as the old saying goes, is a funny old game.
Barely 72 hours earlier, Nicklas Bendtner had missed two hat-tricks’ worth of chances in Arsenal’s nervy 3-1 win over Burnley. Tonight, facing the prospect of overturning a first-leg deficit in European competition – a feat no Arsenal side had achieved in over 30 years – Bendtner was the headline act, safely tucking away two finishes inside the first 25 minutes to steady the nerves and rounding off his night’s work with a last-minute penalty to complete his first ever hat-trick at senior level.
Bendtner’s first came after 10 minutes of one-way traffic, helping to settle the Emirates crowd’s nerves. Andrey Arshavin challenged – fairly – for a 50:50 ball with Porto goalie Helton, and the big Dane was first to the loose ball.
And again, on 25 minutes, after mesmerising footwork from Arshavin created space to slide a ball across the face of the six-yard box, Bendtner was lurking to tap in, like a proper old-fashioned centre forward.
Arshavin then scooped over from 12 yards with an open goal at his mercy - a chance which would have clinched the tie before halftime – and Arsenal then had to endure a nervy 15 minutes at the start of the second half as Porto pressed for the goal which would have forced extra time. Samir Nasri cleared off the line, then barely two minutes later set off on a mazy run through the left side of the Porto defence before finding a seemingly impossible angle between Helton and his far post. 3-0 on the night, 4-2 on aggregate, and effectively game over.
The rest was merely icing on an already sweet cake. A Porto corner, Arshavin stealing the ball on the edge of the Arsenal box, dribbling 60 yards and then threading a perfectly weighted pass for substitute Emmanuel Eboue to take around the keeper for 4-0. Then, with fans already streaming to the exits, it was Eboue again, this time upended in the box (for once, with no suggestion of the diving which has become almost synonymous with his name). Bendtner grabbed the ball, and completed his evening of personal redemption with an emphatic penalty.
One suspects the entire team had a point to prove tonight – that Arsenal, written off more times this season than a demolition derby car driven by Mr Magoo - can still be a formidable force even without their talismanic skipper Cesc Fabregas. From front to back, the men in red and white came out to play, from the rock-solid Thomas Vermaelen and Alex Song down the spine of the team, to the quicksilver surges of full backs Clichy and Sagna and the darting, intelligent movement of Arshavin, Nasri, Rosicky and Eboue, this was a night when Arsenal unveiled all Arsene Wenger’s beloved purist principles.
And the brightest of them all was Bendtner who, despite his implausibly bad day at the office, had been cheered off the pitch on Saturday. I remember remarking at the time that it was one of those games that even the very best strikers can have, that Bendtner at least possesses (in spades) the self-confidence that all top players need to have, and that he would still score some important goals down the stretch in both domestic and European competitions. Mind you, I wasn’t expecting the payback to be this big this soon!
The jury is still out on just how good Bendtner is, and how good he will ever be. It is easy to forget that he is still only 22. At that age Thierry Henry was still widely considered to be a failed winger at Juventus, while Didier Drogba was losing his place in Le Mans’ starting line-up to Daniel Cousin (who popped up most recently at Hull City and is currently on loan at Greek side Larissa). Now I’m not suggesting Bendtner will ever be in the same class as the above two players – he is still some considerable distance from even being the best striker currently at Arsenal – but he might yet become a very fine player. Only time will tell. Yes, he will have stinkers like Saturday, but he is also capable of scoring fine goals with both his head (the equaliser against Stoke ten days ago and his first league goal against Tottenham in December 2007 spring readily to mind) and his feet (the rasping 20-yard drive at the end of the 6-2 rout of Blackburn earlier this season).
After all, it was only a couple of years ago that most Arsenal fans – myself included – were wondering who this young but hopeless central midfielder Alex Song was, yet he has been arguably Arsenal’s most influential – certainly most improved – player this season after Fabregas.
Anyhow, Bendtner has repaid the faith shown to him by Arsenal fans on Saturday, in spades. We’ll be hoping it’s the beginning of great things. And in this topsy-turvy season, who knows what the final chapter will look like?
Tricky challenges await Arsenal in the quarter final (and potentially beyond): Barcelona and Real Madrid, both on record-setting pace in La Liga; possibly Chelsea and Manchester United, who have both done the Premier League double over the Gunners. But such concerns are for tomorrow; tonight, Arsenal – and Nicklas Bendtner - rule the roost.