Ten out of ten for Arsenal.
Arsène Wenger’s side secured a vital victory at Marseille on the opening night of Champions League Group F on Wednesday and, with it, extended the Club record for consecutive away wins into double figures.
The run started at Bayern Munich back in March on the evening of their exit from last season’s Champions League. And the subsequent wins at places like Swansea, West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle went a long way to securing their participation in this term’s competition.
Of course, a run like this is never on built on skill and sweat alone. Desire and mentality are equally important. This evening Arsenal withstood significant Marseille pressure in the first half before Theo Walcott’s rasping volley broke the deadlock just past the hour. Aaron Ramsey’s drive secured the points six minutes from time.
Jordan Ayew scored from the spot with virtually the last kick of the game to reduce the arrears.
It did little to reduce Arsenal’s happiness at this result.
Second in the Premier League, off to a flyer in the Champions League and superb on the road, Wenger’s men are on the march.
Once again, the Stade Veldrome was three-sided for the visit of Arsenal. The renovations ahead of Euro 2016 had moved forward at pace since the game two seasons ago, however the newly-installed roof went only three-quarters of the way around. One of the sides was occupied by the chassis of a stand with five cranes cowering over it.
Wenger’s side showed a single change from the one that had secured a 3-1 win at Sunderland on Saturday. Per Mertesacker had recovered from sickness and returned to the centre of defence. Bacary Sagna moved to right back and Carl Jenkinson was benched. Once again Jack Wilshere was deployed on the left side of midfield.
As ever, the Marseille fans created a cacophony of noise as the teams came out and the opening stages seemed to be inspired by the atmosphere. Andre-Pierre Gignac’s flick and Mathieu Valbuena’s curler forced Wojciech Szczesny into action in the first two minutes.
Then Arsenal went straight down the other end and Mesut Ozil picked out Walcott at the far post. His header was booted away from the danger area. The England winger then had a tumbling shot saved by keeper Steve Mandanda.
It was even and open but gradually Marseille would begin to apply concerted pressure on the Arsenal goal. It started with Gignac and Valbuena pot-shotting well wide of the target.
In the 20th minute, the hosts yielded an open chance. A corner was cleared to Alaixys Romao on the right, his whipped-in cross was guided just beyond the far post by the head of Andre Ayew. Most of Marseille’s aggression would come down that flank in the first half.
Gradually, Arsenal recovered their poise and pushed back. Ramsey had a goal-bound shot deflected away and Mertesacker might have had a penalty when he was kicked in the head as his tried to reach Walcott’s corner.
However the end of the half would belong to Marseille. Six minutes from the break, Valbeuna sent Dimitri Payet scuttling through on the right of the area. He reached the byline and cut the ball back. A sure-footed Mertesacker slid the ball away from danger.
Payet sent over the corner himself and Gignac nodded narrowly over the bar. Just before the whistle, an alert Szczesny raced out to stop Gignac latching onto a through ball from Jeremy Morel.
Marseille had edged a first half that had never really caught fire. However they nearly found a spark within two minutes of the restart. Romao poked Rod Fanni into space on the corner of the six-yard area and he hooked a cross-shot inches past the far post.
It was perhaps the clearest chance of the game. But Arsenal would respond with one that matched it. In the 52nd minute Gibbs darted forward, flicked the ball to Ozil and surged forwad for the return. The German’s stunning backheel allowed the full back to prod powerfully at goal but Mandanda plucked the ball of the air.
Two minutes later Morel’s raking cross ball was met powerfully by Ayew. Szczesny got down well to save at his near post.
This was now a different game – powerful, pacy, inventive and open.
In the 57th minute, Sagna picked out an unmarked Wilshere at the far post. Mananda turned aside his volley.
Then Mertesacker sliced Andre Ayew’s cross over Szczesny and Gibbs headed the ball back into the arms of the grateful keeper from under his own bar.
A goal was coming but you did not know where.
In the end, it was for Arsenal. Gibbs’ regulation cross into the area was mistakenly headed into the air by a stooping Morel. It fell nicely for Walcott to lash a volley high into the net.
Payet tested Szczesny from distance again as Marseille looked for the equaliser. Then, after Giroud’s header had gone within inches of extending the visitors’ lead, Valbuena fired just over the bar. The diminutive midfielder was Marseille’s outstanding contributor on the night.
Ramsey’s strode forward and fired home to end the argument six minutes from time.
At the death, the Welshman was adjudged to have tripped Andre Ayew and his brother scored from spot.
But nothing could detract from this fine, fine result.
Referee: Olegário Benquerença (POR)
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