Arsenal did enough in the opening 20 minutes of this tense game to drag themselves over the line as they opened their Champions League campaign with a solid three points.
They started with the confidence of an unbeaten team and took the game to the French champions, controlling play before Vermaelen had a rush of blood in the ninth minute and fouled Belhanda just inside the area. The Montpellier striker was chasing a nothing ball towards the touchline and therefore a challenge was unnecessary (Vermaelen later admitted he should’ve shepherded him away from goal) but it was made and well spotted by the officials. Belhanda himself cheekily dispatched the penalty down the middle.
Any worries about Arsenal’s reaction were soon dispelled as they carried on attacking brightly. The hosts couldn’t live with their excellent movement and tempo, as exemplified by the lovely passage of passing in midfield that eventually saw Giroud play a clever pass into Podolski, who kept his cool and slotted home a deserved equaliser.
Two minutes later the Gunners had the lead when good work from Gervinho on the right found Giroud, who hesitated and was dispossessed, luckily straight into the path of the overlapping Jenkinson. The right back fizzed a perfect ball across the six yard box for Gervinho to tap home.
Cool hand Lukas does it again
At this point we were looking good. We’d showed tremendous character and composure to recover from the early setback, silence the home crowd and take control of the game. Unfortunately we couldn’t maintain it during the second half and fell away completely.
Diaby set the tone moments after the restart when he casually dawdled on the ball in his own area and was robbed, looking relieved when the resultant shot was sliced wide. The whole team seemed to follow his example and were sloppy until the final whistle, content to play in second gear and look for openings on the counter. Admittedly a good deal of this was due to the improvement of Montpellier as they tore into us, but we looked tired which is a worrying sign after just four weeks of the season. Whether the fatigue was mental, physical or both, I don’t know. But the fact remains we were outplayed and fortunate not to concede an equaliser on a few occasions, most notably when Cabella hit the bar and Belhanda shot straight at Mannone from just seven yards.
Still, an away win in the Champions League is always worthy of praise and there are far more positives than negatives tonight. Our first half display was confident — assured at the back and inventive going forward — and our unbeaten start is now up to five and gathering momentum.
The team performance after the break was a negative, but the only poor display personnel wise came from Giroud. His involvement in both goals spoke volumes — the intelligent assist for Podolski showed there is a good player in there somewhere. For the second goal though, he didn’t evaluate his options quickly enough and before he’d decided what to do with Gervinho’s pass he was tackled. I’ve observed that happen a few times this season and it looks as though he’s struggling to adapt to our fast passing game. His failure to pick out Ramsey against Stoke is another example of him not being tuned in to our style of play yet. But if Wenger thinks he will be a hit once he’s acclimatised then I trust his judgement and am hopeful he’ll be a good signing.
Gervinho’s recent improvement proves you shouldn’t completely judge a foreign signing until they’ve had a year to adapt anyway (and Mertesacker too). The Ivorian is taking up some excellent positions and getting his rewards. On Saturday he made a brilliant run to get in front of his man for our first goal and if Gibbs had squared it like Jenkinson did tonight instead of shooting, Gervinho would’ve had another tap in. His early season form and the quick integration of Podolski and Cazorla (who both look top drawer and importantly work hard for the team) have made the impotent 0-0 with Sunderland seem months ago.
So on to the Etihad on Sunday for the ultimate test. We will know a lot more about how good our defence is after it’s had to deal with Tevez. The improvement at the back has been noticeable, but if I’m being cynical I’d say we haven’t been truly challenged yet. Sunderland, Stoke and Southampton sat back against us while Liverpool have only one decent striker in their whole squad, and Suarez is no goal poacher. Montpellier tonight also showed a less than clinical edge in front of goal so the jury is still out on how good our defending really is for me. It’s certainly a major improvement on last season, don’t get me wrong, but is it good enough for a title challenge? Sunday will tell us.
At the other end we’ve found our shooting boots and will cause Man City problems. While we’ve only conceded two goals in five games, they’ve shipped 11 goals in six (including the Community Shield) so I envisage plenty of opportunities for Podolski, Gervinho et al if we carry on our recent form.
So a good night’s work and a great start to the European season. It sets us up nicely for the home match against Olympiakos (who I consider to be the weakest side in the group) and if we beat them we can even start thinking about winning the group nice and early like last year. But first up it’s the small matter of City and Chelsea, and do you know what? I’m feeling uncharacteristically optimistic…
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