Arsenal kept alive their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League last 16 as Alexis Sanchez inspired a vital 3-0 win against Dinamo Zagreb on Tuesday.
Arsene Wenger’s side were in severe danger of an embarrassingly early exit after losing three of their first four Group F matches.
But Chile winger Sanchez was the catalyst for a result that, combined with Bayern Munich’s 4-0 thrashing of Olympiakos, gives Arsenal renewed belief they can reach the knockout stages for a 16th successive year.
Sanchez laid on Mesut Ozil’s first-half opener at the Emirates Stadium, then struck himself before the interval and wrapped up the points with his second goal in the closing stages.
The Gunners still have work to do, however, as they face a shoot-out for a last-16 berth with Olympiakos in their final group fixture on December 9.
Second-placed Olympiakos, 3-2 winners when the teams met earlier in the campaign, are three points ahead of Arsenal and the north Londoners will only advance if they win in Greece by either a two-goal margin or by winning by a one-goal margin having scored three or more goals.
Even that tricky task will seem like a welcome assignment for Arsenal after they successfully navigated what could have been a nerve-jangling experience against Dinamo, whose shock 2-1 win over Wenger’s men in September had played a large role in their perilous predicament.
“It promises to be a very interesting game against Olympiakos, but at least we have a chance,” Wenger said.
“Let us give everything to remain in the Champions League.”
With their European campaign hanging by a slender thread, Wenger made two changes from Saturday’s defeat at West Bromwich Albion as Mathieu Flamini and Joel Campbell replaced Francis Coquelin and Kieran Gibbs.
Just one win from their last five matches was hardly ideal preparation for a do-or-die showdown, so it wasn’t surprising Arsenal made a nervous start.
But Wenger had said he would be kept informed of developments in Munich and he would have been greatly reassured by the news that Olympiakos had fallen three goals behind within 20 minutes.
– Swagger -With Bayern doing their part to keep Arsenal in contention, the north Londoners needed to increase their own tempo after a sluggish start.
Wenger’s team finally clicked into gear to take the lead with an incisive counter-attack in the 29th minute.
It was a flowing move out of keeping with the soporific fare that had come before it.
Taking the ball deep inside his own half, Santi Cazorla moved possession onto Flamini and he set Sanchez galloping clear in acres of space on the left.
While Sanchez sprinted towards the Dinamo goal, Ozil had made his own lung-bursting surge and the midfielder was perfectly placed in the six-yard box to bury a flying header from the Chilean’s clipped cross.
Confidence now coursing through their veins, there was noticeably more swagger about Arsenal’s play and within four minutes they had doubled their lead.
This time the goal came courtesy of a horrendous mistake from Dinamo defender Leonardo Sigali, whose woefully misplaced pass on the edge of his own penalty area was intercepted by Nacho Monreal.
Sigali’s mistake had completely unhinged the Dinamo rearguard, leaving Monreal with room to break into the area and slide his pass towards Sanchez, who slotted a cool first-time finish past Eduardo from close-range.
Ozil could have killed off the Croatians, but the German’s shot was smartly saved by Eduardo and the keeper did well again early in the second half when he repelled Olivier Giroud’s header.
Dinamo’s attacking impotence made the second half routine for Arsenal and, after Aaron Ramsey came on for his first appearance for a month, the imperious Sanchez capped his latest masterclass in the 69th minute.
Campbell played his part with a fine run and clever reverse pass that Sanchez drove high into the net to complete part one of Arsenal’s escape act.