Arsenal book berth in knockouts

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.

HOME THRASHINGS

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 Partizan goal.

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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