By Richard Clarke at Stade de la Mosson
Arsenal snatched a crucial 2-1 victory in Montpellier on the opening night of Champions League Group B on Tuesday.
It was a rapid response to Montpellier taking the lead after nine minutes. Thomas Vermaelen clipped Younes Belhanda on the edge of the area and the Moroccan dinked home a cheeky penalty. Although Arsenal were comfortable until half time they were under pressure throughout the second period.
With a little more composure they might have been pegged back. The most obvious example came 10 minutes from time when an unmarked Belhanda prodded a tame shot at Mannone after having time to pick his spot eight yards out.
This was not the Arsenal that played with such ominous intent against Liverpool and Southampton. They laboured to a victory that would have made uncomfortable viewing at times for Arsène Wenger, who watched from the stands due to his touchline ban.
Still, experience told on the night for Steve Bould’s side. Arsenal rode out their nervy moments and rode away with a crucial victory.
They are now unbeaten in nine away games against French opposition since the mid-1990s.
Vive la difference!
In his pre-match press conference, Wenger had kept everyone guessing over his team and, in particular, the role that Olivier Giroud would play on his return to the Stade de la Mosson.
In the end, as widely suspected, he started the game up front. Gerinvho reverted to the right and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain dropped to the bench. Abou Diaby returned to midfield at the expense of Francis Coquelin, while Vito Mannone took the gloves from the injured Wojciech Szczesny.
This was a special night for Montpellier. The southern French side was less than 40 years old in its current form and had fought off the mighty, and moneyed, Paris Saint-Germain to lift the title against all odds last term.
This was their first Champions League game and the atmosphere crackled from well before the kick-off, building to a crescendo just before the whistle.
As the teams came out, the home fans unfurled a banner which read “tonight, we are the Gunners”. And, for a time, it seemed they were.
Diaby was booked for chopping down Marco Estrada inside 21 seconds and, in the ninth minute, the home side took the lead. Vermaelen bundled over Belhanda on the far right of the area.
The defender disputed the foul and the fact it had been inside the line. The striker got up and Penenka-ed the penalty over a stranded Mannone.
The goal was met with a barrage of noise. Montpellier might have been champions but their start to the Ligue 1 season had been poor and Rene Girard’s pre-match press conference had been pessimistic. The lead was as surprising as it was welcome to the home fans.
But the moment soon passed. This Arsenal side are a silky kind of steamroller at the moment. Liverpool and Southampton had been overrun in their last two Premier League games and Montpellier would suffer the same fate soon after they had taken the lead.
In the 16th minute, Giroud poked Cazorla’s ball through to Podolski. The German had enough time to steady himself and score for the third game in a row.
Two minutes later, Gervinho burst in from the right-hand byline and, though dispossessed, the ball was prodded in the direction of the overlapping Jenkinson. His cross was low, fast and the Ivorian swept home from close range.
It was double blow from which Montpellier barely recovered for the remainder of the first half - though Remy Cabella forced Mannone into a low save 10 minutes from the break.
But Arsenal would assert their authority just before the whistle. Gervinho danced his way through the Montpellier defence only to see his shot blocked, then Giroud scythed a volley over the bar.
At half time the visitors had control but their lead was still slender.
Diaby’s mistake seconds after the restart should have brought that home. The midfielder ran into a cul-de-sac and was muscled off the ball in his own area by Cabella. Fortunately for Arsenal, the forward blazed his effort wide when there were other options available.
Montpellier had come out with renewed purpose. Garry Bocaly blasted wide and, after Giroud was caught in possession, Anthony Mounier nudged a shot wide as Mannone came out.
In the 54th minute, Cabella saw the keeper off his line and his cultured chip smacked the bar.
Arsenal’s control had been wrestled from them but they nearly struck back in spectacular fashion.
Diaby’s snaking run took out three players before freeing Cazorla on the left. Keeper Geoffrey Jourden batted his shot on to the backtracking Bocaly and the ball flew over the bar. A heart-in-mouth moment for the home fans.
But it did not quell their team.
Montpellier kept asking questions of the Arsenal defence and suddenly Mertesacker and Vermaelen were working overtime.
With 15 minutes left, Bould withdrew Giroud for Ramsey and pushed Podolski central. At the same time, Giraud made his final two changes. Their ambition had not dimmed through the second half.
And it should have been rewarded with 10 minutes left. Souleymane Camara cut the ball back and, after shrugging off Mertesacker’s challenge, Belhanda had a second or two of space eight yards out. However, he blinked.
He fired tamely at Mannone and the chance had gone. The home side would not have another so clear cut.
It was their last real moment of danger on the visitors’ goal. The pressure remained until the final seconds but Arsenal’s defensive resolution, perhaps THE outstanding facet of the season so far, remained strong.
- Diaby Yellow Card
- Cazorla 90
- Gervinho Goal!
- Podolski 90 Goal!
- Giroud 75
- Coquelin 90
- Ramsey 75
- Walcott 90
- Yanga-Mbiwa Yellow Card
- Estrada 77
- Belhanda Goal! Yellow Card
- Mounier 67
- Camara 78
- Stambouli 78
- Aït-Fana 67
- Herrera 77