Arsenal’s Champions League campaign got off and running with maximum points, but only after a difficult examination from French champions Montpellier at the Stade de la Mosson.
Despite establishing the upper hand in the first 10 minutes, Thomas Vermaelen contrived to concede a penalty after going in for the challenge on Younes Belhanda in the box, only to make contact with the forward’s foot rather than the ball. The gifted Moroccan put away the cheekiest of penalties that seemed to stay in the air for an age before nestling in the back of the net.
But as quickly as it took for us to find ourselves behind, we were even quicker to work our way in front. Lukas Podolski capped off a stunning counter with the equaliser after Santi Cazorla pinged a pass to Olivier Giroud, who’s delicate touch found the German forward all on his own in the box. Podolski, cool as liquid nitrogen, feinted a shot to wrong foot the keeper and lash home for 1-1.
Two minutes later, Arsenal was in the lead after Gervinho angled a great run from the right-hand side towards the middle as the ball found its way to Carl Jenkinson on the flank. The young right back hit an excellent low cross as Gervinho continued his run, leaving him with a simple finish from two yards out to make it 2-1.
Arsenal were pretty much on top for the majority of the first half, but chances were rare. Gibbs made a run up the flank before unloading a cross in Giroud’s direction, but the centre wasn’t quite right as the forward tried a difficult volley that went high over the bar.
The second half was an entirely different story. Montpellier got a good grip of the midfield and much of the stanza was played out in Arsenal’s half. Deep in Arsenal territory, Diaby tried to do the old ‘pre-Steve Bould’ tactic of taking on the entire opposition in his own box, only to lose possession in the most dangerous area. Mercifully, Remy Cabella fired wide.
Cabella would return soon to trouble Arsenal as Cazorla lost the ball in midfield, allowing the Montpellier forward to receive a pass and dink a brilliant chip over Mannone, only for the ball to bounce back off the crossbar.
The Gunners had one real chance to counter when Diaby, fresh after that awful mistake in the box, made one of his trademark runs through the middle with an exceptional dribble to the Montpellier area, offloading for Cazorla on the left who fired straight at ‘keeper Geoffrey Jourdren.
Giroud was then subbed off for Aaron Ramsey as Arsenal tried to gain proper control over the midfield. But disaster almost struck soon after as Cabella and Karim Ait-Fana combined to find Belhanda in the box, who evaded a seriously mistimed tackle from Per Mertesacker, to then shoot straight at a grateful Vito Mannone with the goal at his mercy.
It was a big let-off for Arsenal, but we would require one or two more of those before the match was over. Theo Walcott and Francis Coquelin arrived as substitutes on 87 minutes, replacing Podolski and Cazorla.
Cabella, who had been chief tormentor for much of the evening, ran straight at Coquelin on the right flank before nutmegging the Frenchman, before going down really easily in the box under the attentions of Abou Diaby.
My first reaction was that Cabella had dived. On closer inspection, while he still went down without much encouragement, Diaby had his hands all over the forward and was tackling with the wrong foot. It was begging for a penalty and we can thank our lucky stars it wasn’t given.
As it was, we got away with it, and took home three points from a tougher encounter than the ‘Arsenal could win by eight!’ brigade would have had you believe.
Mannone – 7.5: No mistakes of note and was dependable when called upon. Conceded an early penalty but pulled off a vital save late in the game when Belhanda shot straight at his midriff.
Jenkinson – 7: Put in a full shift at right back, constantly called back to make scrambling tackles near the corner flag.Might have been beaten on the odd occasion but his recovery pace didn’t fail him. Good cross to set up Gervinho.
Mertesacker – 6: Had a good outing in the first half, but started to make some errant decisions as the pressure increased in the second half. Silly diving tackle in the box that missed Belhanda entirely, allowing the Moroccan to shoot from close range, and a goofy miscommunication with Vermalen when neither knew who was clearing the ball.
Vermaelen – 6.5: Similar story to Mertesacker. Good first half, could have been better after. One major mistake in the mix-up with his partner, but otherwise spent a lot of time making desperate clearing headers and holding the fort.
Gibbs – 6.5: Caught out on his flank in the first half but improved modestly as the game progressed. Made one or two telling runs in attack.
Arteta – 7: This was the first match where his defensive duties were tested throughout, and for the most part passed the test. Little influence in attack, but lots of effort went into scrapping for possession with the Montpellier midfield.
Diaby – 5: A bipolar performance. Moments of real quality like that surging run through the middle in the second half, and had a great first half. But two extremely poor mistakes in the second where he foolishly tried to dribble out of the box, caught in possession later in the second stanza, and then a bad tackle in the box that could have gifted a penalty. Difficult game.
Cazorla – 6.5: Didn’t do too much wrong but not his most influential outing. Some good stuff when things were going well in the first half, quiet later on.
Podolski – 7: Such a hard worker in defence, and linked up beautifully with Giroud for the equaliser. It will be a surprise when he doesn’t score when one-on-one with a keeper, such is the quality of his finishing.
Gervinho – 7: Third goal in two games for the supposedly goal-shy winger. Is making good runs into the box and had a productive first half. Quiet for the rest of the match.
Giroud – 7: Still no goals, which meant the Sky commentators were going on about how it ‘wasn’t a good game’ for the man playing against his old club. Anything but. Made some good runs, won a truckload of headers, and his assist for Podolski was a testament to his quick reactions. The goals will come.
SUBS: Ramsey – 6: Came on for Giroud in an effort to spice up the second half but never really made a huge difference.
Coquelin – 5.5: Sloppy play near the end as things got desperate in defence.
Walcott – 6: No real time to make an impact, coming on with just a few minutes to go.
After the match, assistant manager Steve Bould was pleased with the three points after a game of two halves.
I thought we were excellent in the first half – we kept the ball and kept the crowd really quiet. The second half was tough and we looked physically a little bit tired.
The crowd got right behind them and it is quite an intimidating place to come and play, so we’re glad to get the result.
I wouldn’t say Montpellier surprised us, they have got some very good players. Technically they are very, very high level. They kicked the second half off really well and got the crowd behind them. We are physically a little bit tired so it was tough. It wasn’t a surprise.
There are obvious things to work on over the next four days before our crucial away match at Man City. Today proved that no matter how well drilled the defence is (and we still have some way to go before we can really be comfortable with that description), there will be shaky moments. It’s only through constant attention to detail on the training pitch in the defensive department that it will be ironed out.
Players like Podolski and Giroud, who are so enthusiastic in their defensive duties despite their being forwards, encourage me no end. It’s going to require a real battling performance on Sunday where everyone pulls in for the team, and I’m glad to see those two players’ attitude spreading across the team.
While I refuse to jump on Giroud’s back over the lack of goals – how long did Bergkamp and Henry take to get going? Eight games? – I won’t apologise for being ‘harsh’ on Diaby after his excellent showing at Anfield. I don’t think anyone doubts his talent anymore after taking Liverpool apart, but his naysayers over his consistency have extra ammunition today after some dreadful mistakes that nearly cost us dearly against Montpellier.
I’m pretty sure he will be essential if we’re going to get anything out of the Man City match, so he’s really going to have to sit down, look at a tape of tonight’s performance, and pull up his socks in five days’ tine.
Nevertheless, I will never complain (too much) over a win. Schalke won their match away to Olympiacos, so that already looks like a statement of intent for first place in our group, while City lost 3-2 to Real Madrid in an enthralling Bernebau encounter.
Last but not least, a quick shout out to Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa. He looks a real player and it can’t be long until one of the top dogs picks him up. He’s been linked to us before, but I don’t get the feeling we’re really serious. A future star.
Right, that’s me for the day. A quick reminder to follow Jimmy Gooner on Twitter and/or Facebook, as well as a thank you for all those who continue to share their thoughts on Arsenal and the blog in the comments.
There should be plenty to talk about over the next few days pre-City. Have a good one!