Arsenal managed to hold on to a first half lead in the opening game of their Champions League campaign in Southern France despite coming under immense pressure in the second half.
Vito Mannone started at the goal due to Szczesny’s injury. The defense was the same as the one against Southampton: Carl Jenkinson at right back, Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaalen as the two centerbacks and Kieran Gibbs at left back. In central midfield, Mikel Arteta was paired with Abou Diaby and Santi Cazorla occupied the most advanced midfield position. The front three had Gervinho on the right, Podolski on the left and Giroud as the central striker against his former team.
Steve Bould was in charge of the team as Arsene Wenger served the first game of his 3-game touchline ban by the UEFA.
Montpellier had a nervous start to their first ever Champions League game, but they were ahead after only 10 minutes. Belhanda chased a hopeful through ball inside the right channel under Vermaalen’s close attention. Montpellier’s playmaker was running away from the goal, yet Arsenal’s captain made a needless challenge to get the ball and clipped Belhanda, who made the most of it. The Spanish referee gave the penalty after some hesitation, and Belhanda coolly chipped Mannone from the spot.
Despite falling behind for the first time this season, Arsenal settled down into a passing rhythm quickly and soon equalized with a sumptuous move through the center. Abou Diaby started the move and linked with Cazorla in between the Montpellier lines. As usual, Cazorla took one delicious touch, raised his eyebrow and found Giroud making an angled run towards the box. Giroud’s one time touch released Podolski, who slotted it home from 10 yards for his third goal in the last three starts. Two minutes later, Arsenal gained the lead this time with a move from their right. Gervinho had a run with the ball through a cluster of Montpellier players on the wide right position, cut inside and found Giroud who released the overlapping Jenkinson. The young right-back’s one time cross was clinical and Gervinho, who had continued his run into the box after starting the move, finished from point blank range.
During the rest of the second half, the two teams failed to create many clear-cut chances. Arsenal looked comfortable in the center of the pitch and did not come under any sustained pressure. Montpellier threatened usually from their right with the lively and skilful Cabella causing Gibbs problems by cutting inside with his left foot. In one such move, Mannone had to be alert to parry away Cabella’s shot from outside the box for a corner. It was Arsenal that finished the half on stronger foot. Gervinho drove inside from the left and set himself up for a shot on goal, but his attempt was blocked. Few minutes later, Cazorla released Gibbs on the left whose early cross was volleyed wide by Giroud. Just before the half time whistle, Diaby’s over the top ball was kept alive by Giroud who found Podolski in the box, but he was crowded out before pulling the trigger.
We may never know what the Montpellier coach Rene Girard told his players during the half time talk, but the last year’s Ligue 1 champions started the second half with the determination of a father who is trying to save his kidnapped daughter from sex traffickers. The French onslaught quickly turned into a siege. Arsenal were denied any long possession of the ball with a relentless press. Montpellier attacked in waves with their passing crisp, slick and to the feet and with Mounier’s and Cabella’s trickery especially eye-catching on the two flanks. When Arsenal tried to break with Cazorla, Podolski and Gervinho, they were quickly mowed down by the buzzing men from Languedoc-Roussillon in navy-blue and orange jerseys. Every lost ball was quickly turned into a Montpellier attack with Diaby and Arteta having immense difficulty in guarding the Arsenal back four. Early in the second half, Diaby lost the ball to Cabella in the Arsenal box after inexplicably holding onto the ball too long, but the young Corsican midfielder’s wild shot missed the target. In another dangerous Montpellier attack, Cabella’s delicate chip from outside the box bounced off the crossbar.
As the half wore on, Arsenal’s hold on their lead looked increasingly unconvincing, especially Cazorla, Gervinho and Podolski looking knackered. Diaby also looked off-the-pace defensively and lazy in the tackle, perhaps due to his early yellow card. In the last 15 minutes, Steve Bould sent in Ramsey taking off Giroud in an attempt to ease the home side’s suffocating pressure in midfield. A likely French equalizer looked almost certain 10 minutes from time when Belhanda controlled a ball in the box, turned away from Mertesacker’s desperate dive and looked up to shoot from 8 yards. With many Arsenal fans closing their eyes at that moment, the Moroccan international blasted the ball straight at Mannone.
In the dying minutes of the match, Montpellier continued to look on top, yet their threat somewhat softened up and Arsenal hung on to their lead.
Arsenal relied on their experience and luck in the second half and came out unscathed from Montpellier’s impressive onslaught. It was curious that Steve Bould delayed his substitutions, despite seeing Arsenal midfield being overrun in whole of the second half. But in the end, it was a useful victory away from home and that’s the most important thing. Arsenal’s defensive qualities will face another and perhaps more demanding test on Sunday at the Etihad Stadium.