By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal took a major step towards qualification from Champions League Group B with a hard-fought 3-1 win over Olympiacos at Emirates Stadium on Wednesday night.
With Arsène Wenger serving his suspension in the stands once again, Steve Bould’s side struggled for real cohesion throughout but they certainly did enough to edge a tight encounter.
Gervinho’s low drive put the home side in front just three minutes from the break but, in truth, Olympiacos were worth their excellent equaliser from Kostas Mitroglou on the half-time whistle.
Still, Arsenal steeled themselves in the second half and Gevinho set up Lukas Podolski to thunder home a second at the near post. They seemed to have control well before substitute Aaron Ramsey ended the argument in injury time from Oliver Giroud’s clever flick.
With Schalke and Montpellier drawing 2-2 in Germany, Arsenal now have clear daylight at the top of Group B.
This was not a memorable European night by any means. But Arsenal did what they needed to do.
And, over the course of a long, hard season, that is sometimes perfectly good enough.
Bould made two changes from the side beaten by Chelsea at the weekend - both in midfield. Francis Coquelin came in for the injured Abou Diaby and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Ramsey. Mikel Arteta passed a late fitness test to play but Per Mertesacker was omitted from the squad due to sickness.
Arsenal and Schalke had scraped narrow away wins on Matchday One. Both were at home this evening and another win would have left Group B about a dichotomous as possible - two teams on six points and two on zero.
This was third visit of Olympiacos to Emirates Stadium in four seasons. They had been beaten on the two previous occasions - albeit narrowly - and Wenger suggested their potentially parlous position made them dangerous this evening.
As the rain swept over Emirates at kick-off, Arsenal had clearly decided to fight fire with fire. There was a positivity about their play, a spark that suggested they were eager to regain the stylish reputation that had taken a dent after Saturday’s defeat.
Kieran Gibbs and Santi Cazorla were the outstanding attacking threats. They combined for Arsenal’s best chance on the quarter-hour. The Englishman was hauled down on the left and the Spaniard’s fizzing free-kick was tipped over by Balazs Megyeri.
For the first half of the first half, Arsenal were persistent and probing. But they could not keep up the pace.
As the game wore on, Olympiacos grew in stature. Just before the half-hour, Mitroglou fired a low shot through a thicket of defenders. Vito Mannone saw it late but managed to clutch the ball on the stretch.
A few minutes later, Giannis Maniatis whipped over a cross from the right and the unmarked Paulo Machado prodded the bouncing ball over the bar from close range. A major let-off.
It seemed Arsenal were under scrutiny and so, perhaps, you could argue their goal was against the run of play.
Three minutes before half-time, Gibbs cut the ball back from the left flank towards Arteta who was dispossessed by Jose Holebas in the D. Gervinho collected the ball and threaded an acute low shot back across the keeper and into the corner.
It seemed to be a crucial breach; a heartbreaker for Olympiacos.
Except that they would be level three minutes later.
Leandro Greco whipped in wonderful ball in from the left and Mitroglou, high and seemingly hanging in the air, guided a accurate header into the far corner.
Arsenal seemed determined to impose themselves at the start of the second half. They were not a their best tonight but sheer will hauled them back into the ascendency.
Gervinho was becoming increasingly influential. He set up Cazorla, who sidefooted wide when he should have tested the keeper.
In the 56th minute, he set up the second. The Ivorian’s initial cross came back to him on the left-hand byline. His second attempt found Podolski at the near post. The German’s shot was so fierce it went through Megyeri.
A third nearly followed straight away. After Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was stopped in his tracks on the right, Koscielny nodded the resulting free kick over the bar from six yards out.
Olympiacos were still ambitious and, in response to the goal, began to flex their muscles again. Bould brought on Theo Walcott to exploit their exertions on the break and Giround to add a focal point.
The Frenchman nearly converted a cross soon after coming on. A minute from time, Ramsey’s backheel sent Cazorla scuttling through on the left. His cutback was met by a fierce shot from Giroud. It hit the back of the unaware Dimitris Siovas and flew wide.
It was that kind of night for Arsenal; effective in some places, off-beam in others.
Ramsey clipped home a third in added time after being released by Giroud’s accurate nod on.
It gave Arsenal security for the first time in the night - and also three valuable points.
- Koscielny Yellow Card
- Vermaelen (C)
- Oxlade-Chamberlain 70
- Podolski 80 Goal!
- Gervinho 80 Goal!
- Ramsey 80 Goal!
- Walcott 70
- Giroud 80
- Contreras Yellow Card
- Diakite 73
- Greco 66
- Machado 80
- Mitroglou Goal!
- Ibagaza 73
- Abdoun 66
- Pantelic 80