Arsenal moved to the top of its Champions League group with a hard-fought 3-1 win over Greek champs Olympiacos, but will be weary after a turgid first-half performance.
Goals from Gervinho, Lukas Podolski and substitute Aaron Ramsey ultimately cancelled out Kostas Mitroglu’s headed equaliser but only after a stern talking to by stand-in manager Steve Bould at half-time.
Arsenal were pretty ordinary in the opening exchanges, still a bit bruised from their home loss against Chelsea last weekend. That match saw Laurent Koscielny receive a bit of a tanning in a disorganised back line, but Per Mertesacker fell ill in the lead-up to the game, meaning the Frenchman kept his place.
Santi Cazorla had a chance from a free kick, out wide on the left with players waiting, but decided to go for it himself from the tight angle, forcing the Olympiacos keeper into a sharp save.
But the rest of the half was almost uneventful, until the last 10 minutes. Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen both got their zones mixed up and missed headers from a right wing cross, which fell to Machado, only for the midfielder to scoop it over the bar from six yards out.
Moments later, Arsenal were ahead. Podolski scuttled won the left flank before sliding a pass across the edge of the box towards Gervinho, who let it bobble on to Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard stopped the ball into Gervinho’s path, who evaded three defenders to make space and fire home from outside the area.
It was a good finish from the once-upon-a-time shot-shy forward, and showed our pre-season promise to shoot a bit more from outside the box.
I would say ‘good stuff’ but within a minute or so, we had been pegged back. Olympiacos bombed down the left as Carl Jenkinson had to watch two players, including the advancing Leandro Greco. The winger, with space to use, fired in a decent cross that saw striker Mitroglu beat both Vermaelen and Koscielny to the header, which flew past Vito Mannone.
Half-time, and a sluggish Arsenal trooped back to the dressing room at 1-1. Passes had gone amiss; there was no real forward thrust to affairs and we seemed to be on our heels more than on our toes.
It’s a credit to Steve Bould – deputising for the suspended Arsene Wenger – that the team came out a different animal in the second half. Clearly he had identified the right areas of our game that needed addressing.
Barely 10 minutes into the second half, Arsenal’s pressure on the visitors paid off as Gervinho snaked down the left wing, recovered the ball on the byline and fed the onrushing Podolski to score. The German’s shot was fired straight at the keeper’s legs, but did enough to get over the line and put us back in the lead.
From there, Arsenal looked mostly in control of affairs. We had the chance to go two goals up when Koscielny missed his header off an Arteta free kick from just a few yards out, but Arsenal’s midfield and defence were doing a better job of restricting Olympiacos to speculative efforts from distance, which Mannone dealt with comfortably.
The substitutions of Ramsey, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud eventually injected some fresh ideas into the team, and we finally got our third goal in injury time. Giroud outmuscled his marker to plant a deft header in the path of Ramsey, who took a touch before chipping a neat finish past the keeper to the delight of the home crowd.
Mannone – 7: Defence was to blame for the goal he did concede but other wise solid. Most shots came straight at him but he got his angles and positioning right today.
Jenkinson – 7: Caught in two minds in the lead-up to Mitroglu’s goal, giving a bit too much space for the full-back to cross. But was mostly solid throughout.
Koscielny – 6.5: Another nervy showing after the Chelsea debacle and missed a header that nearly saw Machado score. Beaten again aerially by Mitroglu at the end of the first half. Things calmed down in the second stanza as he dealt with attackers with a bit more comfort.
Vernaelen- 6.5: Similarly disorganised as his partner and equally at fault for Machado’s chance and the goal. Got himself back together for the second half and nearly got on the end of a Walcott cross.
Gibbs – 7.5: Solid showing. This is not the Kieran Gibbs any of us knew in seasons past. Great start to the season.
Arteta – 7: Had more of an offensive influence in the game last night and did well. Misplaced passes in the first 45 minutes but showed his authority to close the game out.
Coquelin – 7: Composed showing and was an assertive tackler alongside the more experienced Arteta. Will hopefully get a chance to impose himself more in games in Diaby’s absence.
Cazorla – 7.5: More involved than he was against Chelsea. Could really do with a meaner streak in front of goal but kept things ticking over nicely in the second half.
Podolski – 7.5: Got in a great position to give Arsenal the lead with a jammy goal. Gibbs’s defensive improvement has coincided with the German’s arrival and he put in a great shift on the left wing, linking up with the full-back and partering nicely with Gervinho, all the while looking for the pass from Cazorla. Good chemistry.
Chamberlain- 6.5: Blinked out of existence for the first half but managed to put in a few good contributions before being subbed off for Walcott.
Gervinho- 8: Building up a head of steam in the goalscoring department and it’s great to see. Not afraid to shoot anymore and his placement was just good enough to open Arsenal’s account. Great run down the left with a bit of luck saw him turn provider for Arsenal’s second. A tricky customer as always when running the channels, allowing team-mates to join up with him.
SUBS: Walcott – 6.5: Not hugely influential but did get the odd chance to run at the defence. Popped in a cross that nearly found a rampaging Vermaelen in the box.
Ramsey – 7: Brightened up play when he and Giroud came on the field. Snappy passing that upped the pace of our game and scored a neat little goal on the break.
Giroud – 7: Only chance he got was yet another awkward, difficult moment. But scrapped for plenty of balls and won his usual share of aerial duels, the last being a lovely header to set up Ramsey.
Overall, not our most impressive win at home, but it’s three points in the bag and we top our group after 10-man Montpellier somehow drew away against Schalke. It hopefully corrects our momentum after the Chelsea loss ahead of a tricky journey to West Ham on the weekend, but there are still some things that need correcting after our first-half showing.
Namely, it’s central defence. Mertesacker was unavailable today but we need him drafted in ASAP. The best central partnerships we have are Vermaelen/Koscielny and Mertesacker, not Vermaelen-Koscielny. We’ve really missed his organisation skills and anticipation and I’m hoping he’ll be back at Upton Park.
I also think after his substitute’s showing that Giroud really needs to start this weekend, too. It’s a tricky proposition what with Gervinho finding his shooting boots, but such is the nature of our front three that I don’t think it will matter too much if the Ivorian shifts to the right as Giroud comes in. Even if he’s not scoring, I think he’s doing a lot of good, physical graft that will be important against the ‘scrappers’ lower down the league table.
That’s all from me today. Feel free to berate the player ratings and share your thoughts of the match in the comments.