By Richard Clarke
“You could see before the Tottenham game that the dynamics and the confidence of the side were better again. Hopefully that will be a good basis to build upon because you can always say ‘we are good, we are good’ but when you don’t win people say ‘maybe you are wrong’.
“However we know the Schalke [defeat] at home puts us under pressure to deliver now against Montpellier. We cannot afford what happened against Schalke to happen again. Fortunately we had a good result on Saturday and it will help us going into this game.”
That was Arsène Wenger ahead of Montpellier’s visit to Emirates Stadium on Wednesday.
It is matchday five and, consequently, decisions are being made in this season’s Champions League.
A home victory would go a long way to putting Arsenal into the knockout stage for the 13th successive season. Indeed, if Olympiacos lose at Schalke, their progression will be certain.
Before last weekend’s north London derby, the manager admitted these two games were the most important of the season so far. And now, having beaten their neighbours so soundly, Arsenal are hot favourites to overcome a side that, despite pushing Wenger’s men all the way on matchday one, now have to win their final two games to salvage even Europa League football this season.
“We know what we want,” said Wenger. “We want to win because we have a good opportunity to finish the job of qualifying. As for the rest, we always expect our opponents, no matter what is at stake, to play determined and motivated.
“There is no risk that my team will be complacent. They want to do so well that, when it does not go as well as they want, they suffer a bit with confidence.
“But not for a second would I think the team will be complacent. They will be full of desire to do well and win the game, I am certain of that.”
Before the first game between these sides, Wenger argued that their new Champions League adventure had hampered the early-season progress of last term’s surprise Ligue 1 winners. Certainly their domestic form has picked up as their Group B prospects have begun to fade.
They are still 14th in the table but their only defeat in the past five games came in the 3-1 defeat at Olympiacos on matchday four, and significantly, they have scored in each of their last 15 games.
Those in southern France on September 18 will remember the unshackled roar when Younes Belhanda gave Montpellier a ninth-minute lead from the penalty spot and Arsenal’s relief at the final whistle. Only a lack of experience stopped the home side taking one of a plethora of second-half chances to equalise the visitors’ rapid brace.
On matchday two they took a point at Schalke, no mean feat as Arsenal have discovered. Like Wenger’s men, they have suffered in the middle portion of this group.
“Montpellier had a slow start to the season but they have rediscovered their balance over the last few months,” said Wenger.
“They played very well against PSG a few weeks ago and it should be an open game on Wednesday because a draw is not good for either side.”
The only scenario that can put Arsenal through on Wednesday is a pair of home wins. Anything else and they will have to go to Olympiacos on Matchday Six in need of something – even if it is just to avoid a heavy defeat.
However, at the same time, Wenger’s men are much less likely to win the group and, in theory, get an easier draw in the first knockout round unless the Greek champions get a result in Germany.
There is the possibility of Montpellier doing Arsenal a favour in the final group game. However, it is fair to say they have missed Olivier Giroud throughout their Champions League campaign.
The summer signing was somewhat anonymous when he returned to the Stade de la Mosson in September and was substituted late in the game.
Right now, however, he is essential to Arsenal.
In recent weeks, the powerful frontman has added quality and goals to his unrelenting workrate. He has averaged one per game in his last five appearances and, during that period, the Emirates crowd have taken him to their hearts.
According to Wenger, something has seriously ‘clicked’.
“I always think the guy who is up front has to adjust to the players he plays with,” the manager said of Giroud’s adaptation. “His runs are dictated by what the others behind him are capable of doing.
“We have players now in midfield, like Wilshere, Cazorla and Arteta, who can find you if you make the right quality of runs.
“When you speak with great players, sometimes they tell you ‘when he has the ball, sometimes I don’t go in space because I know he will not see me or not give me the ball’.
“It is the striker who has to adapt to the quality of the players behind him.”
The significance of this game is huge. While the trophy with big ears has not been lifted, 13 straight seasons in the last 16 is a record that must make everyone listen.
So while Saturday’s local skirmish did much for the self-confidence of anyone with a red-and-white heart, Wednesday’s tie is about continuing the proudest of European records.
However the needs are more urgent and more specific than that.
Both of these games are about maintaining momentum; returning Arsenal to the crisp and confident side of six weeks ago.
Points are definite, self-belief is not. And back-to-back wins would be much greater than the sum of its parts for Wenger’s men.
Arsenal: Walcott (shoulder), Santos (abdominal), Diaby (thigh), Rosicky (tendon), Fabianski (ankle)
Montpellier: Ait-Fana (knee), Hilton (doubt - groin), Utaka (doubt - thigh), Stambouli (doubt - viral infection) and Aït-Fana (knee)
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