By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal have progressed through the group stage of the Champions League for the 13th successive season.
Arsène Wenger’s side have been in the upper echelons of European football since the last century and they kept up that proud record with a 2-0 win over Montpellier on Wednesday night.
Jack Wilshere opened the scoring early in the second half with his first goal since a late diving header at Aston Villa on November 27, 2010 - some 725 days ago.
It was a sound victory but Arsenal were not self-reliant. Only Schalke’s late winner against Olympiacos made their progress definite. Both sides are through but the Germans still lead Group B by a point.
So in order to secure the supposedly softer tie in the last 16, Wenger’s men will have to win in Athens on Matchday Six and hope Montpellier can end their Champions League adventure in style.
But, given the travails of the other English clubs in the competition this season, qualification of any kind must be applauded.
Wenger made one change from the victory over Tottenham at the weekend. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came in for the injured Theo Walcott (shoulder). It was the former’s first start since the visit of Olympiacos on October 3.
Local rivalries aside, this game was just as important as the north London derby at the weekend given that the potential prize was progression.
Montpellier knew they had to win their last two Group B games just to ensure Europa League football. Advancement in the primary competition was already out of the equation.
However they had pushed Arsenal all the way at the Stade de la Mosson on Matchday One and snatched a point at a highly-rated Schalke in the next set of fixtures. Their time in the Champions League was limited now but they had learned much.
And they would show the benefits of the education by making matters tough for Arsenal in a dour first half.
A game that was slow to start sparked into life in the 10th minute when Laurent Koscielny planted the firmest of headers against the bar from Wilshere’s left-wing cross.
Arsenal recycled the ball and Per Mertesacker displayed a deft body-swerve on the edge of the area before being dispossessed by Henry Bedimo.
However Montpellier would respond. Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa released Anthony Mounier down the left only for the sliding Wojciech Szczesny to snatch the ball on the slide.
The visitors had grown accustomed to their surroundings and, though Arsenal were on top, their ambition was unbowed.
As a result, Arsenal’s next chance came well past the half-hour. First Podolski thieved the ball from Yanga-Mbiwa and dribbled across the area before firing wide of the far post.
Shortly afterwards the German raced on to Santi Cazorla’s ball and screwed his effort past the woodwork on the near side as the Montpellier defence closed in.
In the dying minutes of the half, Younes Belhanda smashed a threatening long-range effort just over the bar.
At the break, Arsenal were in command but hardly inspired. Montpellier were not looking for a dogged draw, they were better than that.
Wenger’s men simply needed to find something extra.
The discovery took less four second-half minutes. Thomas Vermaelen cut inside and sent over a right-footed cross, Giroud rose highest to nod it down invitingly for Wilshere to flick home.
It was the Englishman’s first goal for close to two years.
The strike did not affect Montpellier, it simply couldn’t. Remy Cabella smashed a shot into the midriff of Wojciech Szczesny and Marco Estrada had a dip from distance.
However, just past the hour, Arsenal slammed the door shut in emphatic style.
Podolski nudged the ball to Giroud on the edge of the area and raced into the area in pursuit of the return. The Frenchman’s chip was delicate and it was met with a destructive volley from Podolski.
It was the German’s third goal in three games and had been hit with incredible ferocity.
Montpellier manager Rene Girard immediately made attacking substitutions while Wenger withdrew Oxlade-Chamberlain for Aaron Ramsey.
However Arsenal were still the greater threat. In the 74th minute, Giroud’s shot was blocked and Cazorla’s follow-up batted aside by Geoffrey Jourden.
The Arsenal striker wanted a goal against his old side and was denied from point-blank range with 10 minutes left.
Arteta drifted a free-kick just beyond the far post and, in the dying seconds, Emmanuel Herrera might have grabbed a consolation.
Montpellier had been brave but Arsenal had been better.
- Koscielny Yellow Card
- Wilshere Goal!
- Oxlade-Chamberlain 69
- Cazorla 84 Yellow Card
- Podolski Goal!
- Giroud 84 Yellow Card
- Coquelin 84
- Ramsey 69
- Gervinho 84
- Deplagne Yellow Card
- Bedimo Yellow Card
- Yanga-Mbiwa (C)
- Estrada 79
- Cabella 68
- Charbonnier 68
- Marveaux 79
- Martin 68
- Herrera 68