Arsenal 2 Montpellier 0: The longer Jack Wilshere was away the more his reputation grew to the extent that when he returned to action last month it was a surprise his No 10 shirt did not have “Saviour” stencilled on the back. Wilshere's subsequent dismissal as Arsenal slumped to defeat at Manchester United underlined how overblown some of the hype was but last night the young Englishman reminded everyone there is substance to his billing.
Wilshere's tackling may still reflect an inevitable rustiness in his timing, as does some of his passing, but the way he read Olivier Giroud's knock-down against Montpellier and the deft manner in which he converted the opportunity underlined his quality. It was Wilshere's first goal for almost two years and his joy was evident – as was that of the home support.
Wilshere's 49th-minute goal broke Montpellier's resistance just as it was threatening to derail Arsenal's customary progress to the last 16 of the Champions League. Buoyed by his strike they sealed victory with a superbly taken second from the Germany forward Lukas Podolski. That, together with Schalke's 1-0 defeat of Olympiakos in Germany, means Arsenal qualify with a game in hand, changing the status of their 4 December tie in Greece from worrisome to relaxing.
Victory in Piraeus could still be helpful as it might enable Arsenal to come first in the group and thereby avoid the risk of running into Barcelona in the first knockout round again, but as Schalke would also have to lose in France the same night that seems unlikely. Besides, Cristiano Ronaldo lurks in the second pot, and possibly Zlatan Ibrahimovic as well.
"Statistically it is better to come first so we will play to finish top of the group and take a full-strength side," insisted the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger. In the same breath he added the need to manage Wilshere's comeback, so it remains to be seen how strong that team will be.
Of Wilshere, Wenger said: "After such a long time out it was great to see him get stronger and stronger. He had a difficult start but after the goal he was more confident. He defended much better too."
It was not just Wilshere who took a while to get going. Sometimes a team carries the momentum gained from a coruscating win in a big match into the next game, beginning as they left off, ripping into the opposition with brio and confidence. At other times the physical effort and emotional toll of the first game results in a flat performance in the second. This was one of the latter times. Arsenal left the Emirates on a high on Saturday after coming from behind to beat their North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur 5-2, but last night they suffered cold turkey. There were thousands of empty seats at kick-off and while most slowly filled the stadium remained quiet. Montpellier, a largely unknown team struggling in Ligue 1, brought no aura with them. Arsenal would have to inspire their fans, not the other way around.
But Arsenal frequently conceded possession and moved the ball ponderously. With the resurgent Theo Walcott ruled out with the shoulder injury incurred at the weekend (a worry given his previous fragility in that area) they lacked penetration. Montpellier, their European adventure all but dead, were content to sit back and wait for the chance to counter-attack.
Arsenal should have sparked the match into life early on when Laurent Koscielny escaped his marker to break on to a Thomas Vermaelen cross but he headed against the bar when he ought to have scored. Two minutes later in the goalkeeper's only significant action of the first hour, Wojciech Szczesny sprinted quickly from his goal to dive at the feet of Montpellier's Anthony Mounier.
Thereafter the game became a midfield stalemate until Koscielny stepped out from defence to create a chance from which Podolski should at least have tested Geoffrey Jourdren. Four minutes later the German had another opening created by Santi Cazorla, but again shot wide.
The breakthrough came with a goal more from the playbook of Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis than Wenger. Vermaelen worked space on left, his cross was expertly nodded down by Giroud, and Wilshere reacted first to dink the ball over Jourdren. It could have been John Radford and Charlie George of long ago, or Alan Smith and Mickey Thomas of more recent vintage.
Fourteen minutes later the home fans could start thinking about when they should leave to beat the Underground queue. Receiving a pass from Podolski, Giroud chipped an exquisite return pass which the German lashed into the roof of the net. Both the pass and the finish were reminiscent of that Dutchman now playing at Old Trafford.
That sealed Arsenal's 13th successive qualification for the Champions League knockout stages. "I'm very proud," said Wenger. "It is not the most glamourous thing but it is not as easy as it looks. Few teams do it." The next step, of course, is turning qualification into triumph. "We'll have to improve to have a chance," said Wilshere and Wenger concurred. "It is November now, we play again in March. Hopefully Jack will be stronger and the team will be stronger."
* Shakhtar Donetsk’s Luiz Adriano has been charged by Uefa for disrespecting opponents Nordsjaelland by scoring an uncontested goal after a drop ball. Uefa opened a disciplinary case against the forward for “violation of the principles of conduct” in Tuesday’s Champions League match in Denmark. The case will be judged next Tuesday.
Man of match Cazorla.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee F Aydinus (Tur).