Surprisingly, Arsene Wenger resisted the urge to freshen up his squad last night. Only two changes were made from the Southampton game. Olivier Giroud came in up top in place of Gervinho, who shifted to the right hand side, while Abou Diaby made his return in midfield.
And at the end of the first half Arsenal looked good value for their lead. Despite going behind to a penalty conceded by Thomas Vermaelen, we hit back quickly and decisively. The move for the equaliser was fantastic and showed where this Arsenal side is improving. Very often we’ve found ourselves unable to find the incision required to cut open defences down the middle but the interplay between Diaby and Cazorla, then Giroud’s excellent touch into the path of Podolski gave the German a fairly simple chance to make it 1-1.
A couple of minutes later and we were ahead. The revitalised Gervinho cut in from the right hand side, and when the ball fell for Jenkinson his low, first time cross found the Ivorian a couple of yards out and like Podolski he notched his third goal of the season to make it 2-1. It was obvious that the Arsenal players were trying to make something happen for Giroud on his return to his old club and although he worked hard the best he had to work with was a Gibbs cross and a volley which was half a half chance, at best.
In the second half though, we struggled. Montpellier came out fired up and we didn’t make it easy for ourselves at times. Abou Diaby was caught in possession in his own area, providing a decent chance for Cabella, and Diaby again gave the ball away cheaply, trying a back heel in an area in which he knows better than to try that kind of thing. Over-complicating things like that increased the pressure on us and at no point in the second half did we manage to maintain possession for any prolonged period.
They had two good chances to equalise. Cabella hit the bar with a deft chip which had Mannone beaten and then, when Mertesacker went diving in in the area, Belhanda found himself with just the keeper to beat from about 7 yards out. His penalty was dinked down the middle, Pirlo style, to open the scoring, but this time he shot too close to the Italian who held on well to deny them the equaliser.
Ramsey came on for Giroud to give us an extra man in midfield to try and get some kind of hold on the game, while the introductions of Walcott and Coquelin late on were classic time-wasters. There was one heart in mouth moment when Cabella, who is very light on his feet, went down in the area under a Diaby challenge but thankfully the referee, who booked the Frenchman after 20 seconds for getting the ball, didn’t buy it and we held on for three points.
Afterwards, Steve Bould said:
I am really pleased. It was difficult. I thought we were excellent in the first half – we kept the ball and kept the crowd really quiet. The second half was tough and we looked physically a little bit tired. The crowd got right behind them and it is quite an intimidating place to come and play, so we’re glad to get the result.
You do have to give credit to Montpellier. As poor as we were in the second half, they were very good, worked hard and obviously rose to the occasion a little bit. They’ll probably count themselves unlucky not to have got something from the game, especially when the penalty chipping twat looks at replays of his late chance, but that’s football for you.
Many times we’ve been here after a good Arsenal display which didn’t bring the result we’d like, and if you ask anyone I’m sure they’d choose a poor performance and three points over a great display and conceding a jammy goal to lose or draw the game. That said, I was surprised there wasn’t a bit more in the way of rotation to keep things a bit fresher. We looked weary as the second half went on and needed somebody to offer something a bit different, particularly in midfield. Aaron Ramsey didn’t come on until the 76th minute and we probably could have done with a change or two a bit earlier.
I suspect the manager was loath to change a winning team and in the end he’s got the three points from the players he selected. I also think if we’d been playing tonight, then in the league on Saturday, he’d have been more tempted to change things around but the distance between Tuesday and Sunday meant he could stick with the players who have, until now, played very well this season. We didn’t play particularly badly either, I think Montpellier’s 2nd half performance was excellent and perhaps showed that the boss was right to go with what is currently his strongest XI, more or less.
Up front Olivier Giroud battled hard but was given little service from us and even less from his former teammates who were determined to stop him having an impact. The sight of him in the tunnel before the game, his face in his hands, a picture of nervous pressure, showed how much this game meant to him but also that he needs to get off the mark for his own sake sooner rather than later. Personally, I don’t think there’s a real issue, it’s been just four games, but it’s hard not to think the player himself is feeling it a bit.
Overall then, a good three points, a hard fought win, a decent test of the defence and a game in which we rode our luck a little bit. In the end it’s a game that will be quickly forgotten in terms of performance but the three points that leave us joint top of Group B are very welcome indeed. Now we’ve got to look after those legs which looked so jaded in the second half and prepare ourselves for a much stiffer away test on Sunday.