Standard Liege 2 – 3 Arsenal
By Sam Lyon
Eduardo pounced in the final 10 minutes as Arsenal came back from two goals down to beat Standard Liege in a thrilling Champions League encounter.
The striker bundled in a corner minutes after Thomas Vermaelen’s scruffy equaliser to complete the comeback.
That was after Liege took a shock early two-goal lead when Eliaquim Mangala shot in and Milan Jovanovic scored from the spot after William Gallas’s foul.
But Nicklas Bendtner slid in for 2-1 and Arsenal went on to snatch the win.
The Gunners left it late, though, after producing a performance some way short of their explosive and penetrative best.
The Belgian side may feel somewhat hard done by having repelled Arsenal for large periods of the match with a determined, disciplined defensive display that had looked like frustrating their exhalted opponents until the dramatic finale.
And they will point to the fact that Alex Song, who set up Vermaelen for the visitors’ critical equaliser, looked offside and as if he had handled the ball before laying the ball into the defender’s path to score.
However, it is hard to argue Arsenal did not deserve at least a point out of a game they controlled for all but the first five minutes.
The Londoners entered the match as firm favourites but Liege are not without pedigree themselves, as they showed in running Liverpool close in last season’s Champions League qualifying round before going on to dump Everton out of the Uefa Cup.
And, as it turned out, the hosts could not have hoped for a better start.
Eduardo, in the starting line-up after his two-match European suspension was rescinded this week, was the guilty party, the Croat’s unnecessary attempted back-heel on the edge of the Arsenal box falling to Mangala, who lashed into the near post past Champions League debutant keeper Vito Mannone.
Then, almost directly from the restart, Jovanovic drove at the Arsenal defence before going down in the box under Gallas’s clumsy swipe, the top scorer in the Belgian league this season picking himself up to slot in the penalty.
The Maurice Dufrasne Stadium was in dreamland, and Arsenal were visibly rocked, struggling to knit together their complex passing game in the face of an increasingly determined Liege defence.
Eduardo had a neat turn-and-shot blocked and Bendtner flashed wide, but the Gunners rarely looked like regaining the composure that had deserted them since Mangala’s opener.
That was until shortly before the break and Bendtner’s crucial goal, the Dane running on to Abou Diaby’s flicked pass to slide home his first of the season and give the visitors renewed hope going into the half-time break.
In a frantic start to the second half, either side could have added to their tally, Dieudonne Mbokani seeing his goalbound shot blocked by Gael Clichy and Bendtner denied a shot on goal when through at the other end by a fabulous saving tackle from Mangala.
But, despite Tomas Rosicky impressing on his return to the starting line-up for the first time since January, Arsenal still struggled to trouble home keeper Sinan Bolat, despite their wealth of possession.
However, with the clock ticking towards the final 10 minutes, the Londoners finally drew level – Belgium international Vermaelen, poking home from a yard after Song had prodded back into the box from Cesc Fabregas’s deep free-kick.
Liege complained vociferously about Song’s role in the goal, but there were no doubts about Eduardo’s winner – the forward bundling home Fabregas’s corner from close range off his knee with only nine minutes remaining.
It was a dramatic finale that stunned Liege, and perhaps answered a few critics who have argued this young Arsenal side can no longer grind out results when not at their best.
And with this the fifth season out of six that the Gunners have opened their Champions League group stages account with a win, few will argue they are not capable of at least matching last season’s run to the semi-finals.