I’ve seen worse wins, I’ve seen better losses, I’ve seen more dogged defensive displays, I’ve seen more fluid attacking prowess, I’ve seen the team more energized, I’ve seen the team play with the batteries run out, it was a game of two halves, it was a game of ninety minutes, we’ve had luckier escapes, we’ve been horribly jinxed – in short given the inconsistency that has been the hallmark of the last seven years it was a game that not so much defied Arsenal’s history as embodied it.
Thirty seconds into the match a loose pass in the center circle gave Abou Diaby hope that if he stretched himself, he might just beat Marco Estrada to the ball. The Arsenal man’s first two long-legged strides brought him close to the ball but a moment hung in the air where you could feel that a decision was upon the Arsenal man: stand up to the 50-50 challenge and risk having his leg broken as it had been many times before, or go for the ball “full-blooded” and protect himself as experience has taught him now to do. He went full-blooded, won the ball, and but for the studs being slightly raised combined with Estrada’s playacting and the referee not being English would have gotten away scott free. Instead Diaby received the fastest yellow card in Champions League history.
That card and foul set the tone for the first half. Montpellier would spend most of that period feeling aggrieved by what they would surely call Arsenal’s “overly aggressive” play. Meanwhile Arsenal would feel equally angry by the fact that the referee was rewarding their playacting. More than once, an Arsenal player closed space on a Montpellier player with the ball, only to see the Ligue Un player fly into the air as if he’d stepped on a landmine. Replays almost always showed little or no contact.
So when Belhanda went down on the edge of the box after what looked like an innocuous challenge by Thomas Vermaelen, the cries of “dive” were audible the world over. What exactly possesses defenders to try to make that tackle is unclear: Belhanda was being shown the corner, all Vermaelen needed to do was stand him up and wait for help. But a rush of blood — much like a forward who takes a shot on the volley when they have time to take a touch first — sometimes tricks a defender into thinking they can win the ball and be a hero. It almost never pays off an in this instance the referee was quick to point to the penalty spot. Replays confirmed that there was contact and Arsenal fans might be miffed that it was a soft penalty but they should be angrier at Vermaelen who had no need to make the challenge.
Belhanda coolly converted the penalty with a “paneka” that was so slow and low it looked as if Vito Mannone had time to fall down and get back up to make the save. He didn’t, but I wonder how long it will be before some keeper just stands there and waits for one of these self-important penalty-takers to try their cheeky little chip only to snag it out of the air, one handed. Like Michael Jordan paming a basketball.
Arsenal’s answer was swift and deadly. By full time, the London team only had a grand total of seven shots to the home team’s seventeen* but they made the most of the chances they had which Montpellier certainly did not.
The first Arsenal goal was also Olivier Giroud’s first assist for Arsenal. He had been winning aerial duels all night against his opposite number and supposed Arsenal transfer target, Yanga-Mbiwa. He had so frustrated the Montpellier defender that he resorted to kicking through the Arsenal man in order to try to slow him down. Ironically, Giroud’s assist came not off aerial play but rather from a simple one-touch pass which played Podolski through. One-on-one, the German stroked the ball a few times to coax the keeper to the ground and then powered a 100mph left footed shot past him as he flopped around on the ground helpless.
That’s when the shrieking began. French fans love to whistle whenever they disapprove of the opposition. It’s their method of booing players. But the problem is that it fills the stadiums with a sound akin to screaming fans at a Beatles concert. I can’t tell which is worse, the shrieking French fans or the buzzing drone of the Vuvuzela.
Arsenal took the lead for good a few minutes later when Corporal Jenkinson latched onto a misplaced pass and hit an absolute laser beam of a low cross into Gervinho who had made one of his now customary runs straight into the box. Gervinho’s transformation from wing-wizard with a penchant to get past his man but with no final product to an outright forward who can still dribble a defender but who puts the ball into the back of the net is nothing less than miraculous. It’s still early doors on the Gervinho as center forward experiment but so far, there’s not much wrong with it. One has to wonder what Theo Walcott is thinking at this point: “I could be starring in ‘Being Liverpool’ instead of staring at a starring role in the League Cup” must be at least one thought.
The second half wasn’t so much the opposite of the first but rather almost an entirely new contest. Suddenly, Montpellier looked like the French champions and started to dominate Arsenal’s midfield, forcing turnovers and generating 6 shots in the span of just 10 mind-boggling minutes. Arsenal’s midfield were stuffed back so far into their own half and opportunities for outlet passes so few and far between that Diaby was dispossessed not once but twice deep in his own area. The resulting pressure carved Arsenal’s defense apart and but for the wastefulness of Belhanda and Cabella (whose looping, wild shot when in acres of space told almost the whole story) would have surely resulted in an equalizer.
Cabella in particular benefited from longer studs installed in his shoes as he no longer went to ground as if shot, by a cannon, at the slightest of touches. Or perhaps it was the proverbial hairdryer at halftime employed by manager Rene Girard informing the boys that if they continued with the diving he would have to change the name of the club to “Montpellier: Plonger Sport Club”.
Whatever the impetus, Cabella and his teammate in attack, Belhanda, created numerous golden chances in the second half as the pressure told on Arsenal’s tired legs. Cabella caught Mannone off his line and but for the smallest of margins (which still count, no matter how small) would have chipped the Italian to draw level. Arsenal were spared their blushes by the bar. And later, the normally taciturn Per Mertsacker slid wildly to block a shot which Belhanda coolly avoided with a deft touch and once again found himself one-on-one with the keeper; only to fire straight into Mannone’s arms who collected as easily as a cat playing with a velcro ball.
Arsenal’s only moment of joy in the second half came after Diaby had been dispossessed both times and the lanky Frenchman decided that third time’s a charm. Looking upfield, he slipped passed his marker and sprinted forward. Beating two, three, men before running into a panicked wall and slotting a pass for Cazorla who was now in acres of space. The Spaniard went for power but his shot was straight at the keeper, who collected with ease.
Much will be made of Arsenal’s seeming difficulty overcoming what many are calling the “16th place French team” or the fact that once again Olivier Giroud didn’t score but the signs were all positive from my perspective. Montpellier seemed to suddenly remember that they are French champions and act like it. Arsenal in turn weathered the storm and not only went on to win but overcame a one goal defecit for the first time since beating Barcelona 2-1 at the Emirates — which they did in a similar style as well: playing with tired legs, sitting deep, and doing their bet to keep their shape. Yet the danger is to think that Arsenal are becoming the sort of team that sets out to sit deep for 90 minutes and scores on their only chance, the kind of team than many Arsenal supporters hate with the fire of a thousand suns. Instead this Arsenal team seems to be testing out different masks, the Bould mask and the Wenger mask, and wondering how they look in each. The optimistic among the Arsenal faithful are holding out hope that this group of players will strike the right balance between the two. It’s been done before with an Arsene Wenger Arsenal team and they went 49 games unbeaten.
Oh and one more positive: Giroud got his first Arsenal assist.