Arsenal secured their place in the Champions League knockout stages for a 13th consecutive season after beating French champions, Montpellier, 2-0 and Schalke saw off Olympiakos.
The only way group D could have been concluded tonight was if both Arsenal and Schalke won their respective home games and both managed to do so which will leave them fighting for the top spot in the one remaining group game. Arsenal will travel to Greece to face Olympiakos as Schalke go to France to face Montpellier.
At the Emirates, the home side took a very long time to settle into the game and it was clear to see that they were feeling the tension as the passing was abysmal for the first half. Sloppy passes from Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain never really allowed Arsenal to settle into the game and they never really got things going in the first 45.
The first real clear-cut chance did fall for Arsenal though in the tenth minute when a Laurent Koscielny header thundered off the crossbar much to the relief of the travelling fans. After a wonderful cross by Thomas Vermaelen, the centre back was left un-marked in the box, but he saw his header cannon off the bar and get cleared away. After sloppy defending at the back from Montpellier, Lukas Podolski created a chance for himself after making space, but he could only drag his shot wide of the past. He probably should have laid it off to Olivier Giroud who was in acres of space, but instead the German international decided to shoot.
As for Montpellier, they failed to create many chances in the first half despite having a fair amount of possession. Giving credit to the Arsenal back four, they only allowed the French side to take long range shots which never seemed to trouble goalkeeper, Szczesny.
After a very dire and sloppy first half, the teams went in level at 0-0 with Arsene Wenger portraying a very unimpressed figure as his side walked down the tunnel.
Whatever Arsene Wenger said at half-time it certainly worked as just three minutes into the second half, they gained the lead. After a lovely deep ball from captain, Thomas Vermaelen, ex-Montpellier man, Olivier Giroud, rose above defenders to cushion the ball down into the path of Jack Wilshere who produced a delightful little chip over the advancing goalkeeper. It was a great moment for Jack and Arsenal fans alike as it was the Englishmans first goal since 2010, a whole 725 days ago.
The game was sealed and done with when Lukas Podolski produced an absolute stunning goal after a glorious pass from Giroud. After a short pass from Podolski to Giroud, he then lifted his head and then produced a lovely pass over three Montpellier defenders and that left Podolski unmarked to volley the ball home past the keeper. Words cannot do this goal justice as the German international watched the ball come over his shoulder and then thumped the ball home on the volley. A lot of fans would liken it to a certain Van Persie’s goal last season against Everton, but I’m sure Arsenal fans won’t want that comparison.
With the second goal going in, that really killed the game as a contest as Montpellier really couldn’t get going at all and only really had long-range shots which were comfortable for Szczesny and the Arsenal defence.
Instead of sitting back on the two-goal lead, Arsenal kept pushing forward and still created chances, but couldn’t add to their lead. Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud forced great saves out of Jourden and a Mikel Arteta free-kick nearly found it’s way into the back of the net, but it just whistled past the post.
Arsenal goalscorer, Jack Wilshere, revealed their delight at getting through, but has admitted that they need to improve:
“We’re pleased – it was a tough game. Montpellier are tough and we started sloppily, but we knew we had to keep going and get the win. We’ll go to Olympiakos, who will be tough, and we need to finish top of the group. We’ve seen in previous years that if you come second you could be in trouble, so we need to finish top. The first-half was sloppy, we were giving the ball away and weren’t ourselves. It was important to get an early goal in the second half and I was in the right place at the right time.
“We have to step it up. Tonight wasn’t good enough, especially the first half. We’ll watch the game and work on our weaknesses. We’ve got to play the best teams in the competition to win it.”
Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, had plenty of praise for the young midfielder after the game:
“He’s getting strong physically. Tonight he got in the box – he’s the complete midfielder you know,” he said.
“I believe he can defend well, attack well and these kinds of matches will give him confidence.”
The Arsenal boss then went on to talk about the group and where it leaves his side:
“We will try yes to finish top of the group. You always feel a bit guilty if you don’t do it. There are groups where you have Dortmund first, Real Madrid second – you don’t really know what is the best.
“In this competition you just want to get to the next round and win the game. That’s all you can do. Now of course we go into a cup (knock-out) competition which is a little bit different. We have some time and it’s important we go into March with our best team available.
So after a sloppy and slow first half, Arsenal finally came good in the second half and two wonderful goals from Jack Wilshere and Lukas Podolski was enough to see Arsenal qualify to the knockout stages.
They will now go to Olympiakos in a few weeks time knowing they are guaranteed a place in the last 16, but they will still want to win to have a chance at finishing top of the group.
Alex William Batt