What we were looking for post-Sp*rs was a solid, professional performance, a building block, and there’s no doubt we got that last night.
There was just one change from the team that started last Saturday and that was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in for the injured Theo Walcott, pretty much as expected. What was unusual was Arsenal’s sloppiness in possession, particularly in the first 10 minutes or so. Passes were over-hit, under-hit, hit straight into touch and perhaps against better opposition that might have proved more costly. As it was, Montpellier never really looked that threatening and we got away with what was a careless opening to the game.
Although the first half remained scoreless, I thought we grew into the game. Koscielny’s header which crashed back off the bar in the 11th minute was probably the best chance, but Lukas Podolski had a couple of moments where he threatened, a taste of things to come. There was also a wonderful moment when Mertesacker shimmied his way into the box, like a gigantic Lionel Messi, only to have the ball taken from his toes. Boooo!
Montpellier tried to expose us on the break but the one time they did get in behind Wojciech Szczesny was alert and timed his intervention to perfection. We needed an early goal in the second half and that’s exactly what we got. Olivier Giroud headed down Thomas Vermaelen’s cross and Jack Wilshere, ever alert, was there to run on and dink it over the keeper for his first goal in nearly two years. His joy was unconstrained and it was obvious that as much as coming back was a great thing, his first goal since then was something he’d been waiting for.
I thought the goal would settle us down and help us really get on top but we went into our shell for a few minutes. The visitors were restricted to speculative long range efforts (one from about 40 yards out was as ridiculous as it it gets) but really posed no threat at all. And then, well, we saw one of the goals of the season.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain cut inside from the right hand side. The ball came to Podolski, he played it to Giroud who clipped a Bergkampesque pass over the Montpellier defence. The weight, the loft, the delicacy of the pass were all perfect, and Podolski continued his run before thundering a first time volley past Jourdren to make it 2-0. Watching replays you can’t help but be enthused by the finish, particularly the fact that he caught the ball when it was still quite high, but the more you see the pass you more realise how brilliant it was.
What’s interesting is the understanding that’s clearly growing between the two. Podolski later spotted Giroud’s clever run inside the Montpellier defence and picked him out beautifully, only for the keeper to spoil things by making a good save. The rotter. But they’re producing, 13 goals and 8 assists between them in all competitions this season is a very decent return, and the more the play together and get used to to each others games then the better they’ll be.
The match was pretty much done and dusted from there. There were run-outs for Ramsey (who did well), Coquelin and Gervinho, and with Schalke winning at home to Olympiacos it meant that qualification for the knock-out stages was assured for the 13th season in a row. It’s a stat worth noting as those with deeper pockets fall short. Again. Topping the group means going to Greece and getting a win while hoping Schalke drop points to Montpellier, but that’s a bridge we can cross when we come to it.
Afterwards, Arsene said:
We didn’t find our way in the first half, and Montpellier won many 50-50s. Technically we were not completely clean and accurate and I was worried we could be caught on the counter attack. In the end it went well.
Thirteen times in a row we qualified. I’m very proud because it’s not the most glamorous thing, but it’s most difficult to be consistent at our level. It is a credit to the Club, because it is not as easy as it looks. If you look all over Europe, there are not many teams who do it.
From what he said as well it looks as if we’ll take a full squad to Greece to try and finish top, but qualification was the most important thing. The vagaries of the group stages mean you could just as easily draw a top team by finishing second, but for that’s what the Champions League is all about. There aren’t any easy games at this point really, so que sera sera.
Overall, I thought it was just what we needed last night. Although it probably didn’t feel like it, this was a game in which the stakes were very high and we dealt with Montpellier well throughout. Szczesny was, one moment apart, more or less untroubled and did what he had to do with a minimum of fuss. Seeing us keep a clean sheet for only the second time in 16 games was very welcome too.
And I know he’s the player that everybody’s going to talk about this morning but I have to give props to Olivier Giroud. He’s never going to be the kind of striker with lightning pace who streaks in behind, nor is he flashy in and around the box, but he is becoming extremely effective and is a real team player. He might not have scored last night but he got two assists, held the ball up well, and when it was required he got back and put in a shift defensively too.
As Arsene Wenger said, ‘he fights for the team’, and after some difficulties in the first few weeks of his Arsenal career – exacerbated by the ludicrousness of modern football/fans where a player is written off after just a few games – he’s shown why Arsene Wenger splashed out and, frankly, £12.5m looks money very well spent when you see what he brings to the side. The manager says he’ll get better too, I like that.
So, three points, qualification assured, clean sheet, a Jack Wilshere goal and a wonder-strike from Podolski. No complaints.
Next up, Villa.