Football – Champions League
Champions League Group B, Stade la Mosson – Montpellier 1 (Belhanda 9, pen) Arsenal 2 (Podolski 16, Gervinho 18)
Arsenal withstood severe pressure from Montpellier in a tense second half to come away from their opening Champions League game with a fortunate 2-1 victory.
Starting their 15th successive campaign in the group stages of the competition, Arsenal found themselves 1-0 down to a cheeky penalty from Younes Belhanda after only nine minutes following a foul by Thomas Vermaelen on the Morocco international.
Arsenal, managed on the night by Steve Bould with Arsene Wenger serving a touchline ban, quickly turned things around as Lukas Podolski claimed his third goal in three games after 16 minutes and Gervinho added a second soon after.
However, Montpellier completely dominated the Premier League side in the second half, and but for some wayward finishing would have claimed a deserved victory in their first foray into the Champions League.
A greater contrast in Champions League experience would have been hard to find on the first matchday of the new campaign. Arsenal are part of the fabric of Europe’s best competition while Montpellier, surprise champions in France last season, had not faced English opposition in Europe since a meeting with Manchester United in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991.
Olivier Giroud was handed a start when returning to face the club he helped to the Ligue 1 title last season with 21 goals. Though having drawn a blank in four Premier League matches so far, the striker was tasked with leading the attack as Gervinho returned to a wide position and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain dropped to the bench. As expected, Abou Diaby also returned to midfield while Vito Mannone filled in for the injured Wojciech Szczesny.
Diaby, absent from the 6-1 win over Southampton due to injury, was harshly booked after just 21 seconds for an enthusiastic challenge on Marco Estrada – setting a Champions League record – and Arsenal were counting the cost of another badly-timed challenge after only nine minutes when Vermaelen rushed across to the left extremity of the penalty area and brought Belhanda crashing to ground with a clumsy swing of his left boot.
Belhanda, whose guile and invention helped Giroud amass all those goals last season, demonstrated why he is being talked about as one of Europe’s most exciting young players when executing a Panenka from the spot, chipping the ball nonchalantly down the middle while Mannone dived to his right. Such was the loopy trajectory of the penalty, Mannone almost had time to get to his feet and claw it away, but Belhanda had judged it perfectly.
This was not the scoreline expected in a match between a side unbeaten in four Premier League games and a team that had lost three in five in Ligue 1. It took only seven minutes for Arsenal to draw level, and a further two to put them in front.
Following his impressive and rapid adaptation to English football, it was hardly a surprise to see Podolski pull Arsenal back to 1-1. Santi Cazorla looked for Giroud on the edge of the box and the striker found the German with a fine, cushioned first-time pass. Podolski took a touch before advancing on Geoffrey Jourdren and calmly slotted the ball past the keeper to finish off a 19-pass move in style.
Montpellier had hardly had time to settle before Arsenal were in front. Gervinho, scorer of two goals against Southampton when playing as a false nine, drove in from his position wide on the right and, after playing the ball away, drifted into the box menacingly. Arsenal were lucky to see the ball roll into the path of Carl Jenkinson following a tackle from Jamelle Saihi on Mikel Arteta but the right-back did well to pick out Gervinho with a low cross, the Ivorian just about beating Jourdren from close range.
Both sides found space to exploit in their opponents’ defence in an absorbing, if not particularly high-quality contest. Before half-time Montpellier were denied an equaliser when Mannone got down superbly to tip away a low shot from Estrada, while Giroud sent his first chance of the game wide when meeting a Kieran Gibbs cross with an ambitious volley at the near post.
Montpellier have had a difficult start to the season but they emerged for the second half a renewed force, demonstrating just how they took the Ligue 1 title in 2011-12. Their movement pulled Arsenal open and inside three minutes they should have levelled. Diaby was guilty of a stupid decision when trying to turn away from a challenge in his own box and was thankful that Remy Cabella lacked any composure and blasted the ball off target when he had only to beat Mannone.
Cabella then teed up Garry Bocaly with a floated pass to the back post before the defender fired wide, and the Frenchman continued to shine when taking the ball 20 yards from goal and striking the top of the bar with a gorgeous chip that caught Mannone unawares.
Arsenal were restricted to a firm drive by Cazorla following a nice pass from Diaby as Montpellier took control of the game, but a lack of end product undermined the hosts’ attempts to find an equaliser. They were creating the kind of chances that Giroud would have relished, but his rather uneventful evening in an Arsenal shirt came to a close when he was replaced by Aaron Ramsey after 76 minutes, the striker receiving a generous round of applause from the home fans.
Creeping into the last 10 minutes, Montpellier’s ineptitude in front of goal left them frustrated once again. A low cross found Belhanda in the box and as Mertesacker went to ground he spun away from the German defender. With Mannone at his mercy, and time to pick a corner, the playmaker thumped his shot straight into the midriff of the keeper from eight yards to waste a brilliant opportunity.
It was symptomatic of their performance in the second half: pressure but no penetration. And after Cabella was denied a possible penalty when being knocked to ground by Diaby in injury time, Montpellier were left to rue their impotence in front of goal as they succumbed to a 2-1 home defeat.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Younes Belhanda – Montpellier: He may have been on the losing side, but the Moroccan playmaker was a constant threat to Arsenal and his lovely penalty was arguably the stand-out moment of the game.
Montpellier: Jourdren 6, Bocaly 7, Yanga-Mbiwa 7, Hilton 6, Bedimo 6, Mounier 7, Estrada 6, Cabella 7, Saihi 6, Belhanda 8, Camara 5. SUBS: Ait Fana 7, Herrera 6, Stambouli 6.
Arsenal: Mannone 7, Jenkinson 7, Mertesacker 7, Vermaelen 5, Gibbs 7, Diaby 7, Arteta 7, Podolski 7, Cazorla 7, Gervinho 7, Giroud 6. SUBS: Walcott 6, Ramsey 6, Coquelin 6.