Arsenal 2 – 0 Montepellier
1 – 0 Wilshere (49)
2 – 0 Podolski (63)
Arsenal ambled out of the qualifying phase last night with victory over Montepellier that rendered the trip to Piraeus irrelevant beyond a gamble on whether finishing second in the group is any worse than topping it in this year’s competition. As Manchester City mirrored our own early travails and crashed out of Europe before Christmas, Arsenal gained another win to rebuild their brittle confidence. We forget that in Arsène’s first two Champions League campaigns, the group stage proved an insurmountable hurdle. Alas City’s owners will probably afford Mancini the same comfort as di Matteo and the two Bobs will be beside each other in the job centre before The Citizens have the chance to flop once more.
As it is the wins for Arsenal and Schalke have resolved this group and on the basis of last night’s performance, it is hard to see the Germans failing to win in Montepellier. The French champions were utterly ordinary. Well-organised and hard-working but distinctly average. It was not hard to see why they were bottom of the group on arrival in north London; they remained there and gave Arsenal their first home win over a French team in the Champions League along the way.
Looking ahead there seems not much advantage in top or second place. The strength of Barcelona, Dortmund, Shaktar and Bayern is offset by Porto and Malaga in likely top spots with a similar tale for runners-up at the moment. This year there are few surprises in qualifiers, maybe two notable failures, but the competition beyond the group stage has strength in depth for the first time in many seasons.
Arsenal were sluggish in the first half last night, errant in their passing and movement. Everything seemed laboured, forced, as if under orders to finish the job in the opening half of the first forty-five minutes. I can’t think of many Jack Wilshere passes which found their target in that phase of the match; the truth of the matter is that there were probably plenty, it is just that we are not used to such profligacy of possession and thus remember the poor parts, the usual high standards simply seep into the sub-conscious. On the right, there was a troublesome lack of understanding at times between Sagna and Oxlade-Chamberlain, only to be expected with their lack of playing time together this season.
They were not the only ones but despite this, Arsenal controlled the match. Montepellier might have been well-organised but they lacked attacking threat. So did their hosts to a certain extent with Koscielny’s tenth minute header against the crossbar the only effort of note on target in the half. The remaining efforts were few and far between, mainly far – far beyond the woodwork, Podolski and Cazorla the closest to goal.
The half-time tea made the difference. The Oooh from the well-known brand got its La-La when Olivier Giroud contorted to meet Thomas Vermaelen’s cross, nodding the ball into the path of Jack Wilshere’s run for a deft lob into the net. For the youngster, his first goal since returning from injury along with some sense that the goal had been merited for the levels of his recent performances. It was a relief in that the pressure to perform eased. The breakthrough made, there was no need to force the issue so much. It had taken four minutes of the second half.
Cabella gave Szczesny the briefest of reminders that Arsenal were playing before the hour mark but minutes later, Podolski finished what passed of the contest. A one-two with Giroud on the edge of the area brought a thunderous volley from the German, lifting The Emirates netting to its fullest extent with a searing power. Giroud and Cazorla might have increased the margin of victory later on but the Frenchman in particular, was to be denied his due reward.
It wasn’t a vintage performance but like the weekend, it didn’t have to be. A win was all that mattered, ensuring that Arsenal fulfilled their part of the evening’s requirements. Draw, draw, win, win. The tentative steps of an unbeaten run are being taken. A sustained spell of wins – and let’s be honest, only Everton and Olympiakos away look tough fixtures – between now and the end of the year, ought to be achievable. If that ten game run happens, then performances levels will be improved – consistently. Right now, the result counts, letting the manager and staff work with the players they have to resolve shortcomings and enhance qualities.
So Champions League qualification is assured, European adventures continuing into next Spring and on a proper football night. Job done.