Jack Wilshere on target as Arsenal reach Champions League last 16
Champions League: Arsenal 2 Montpellier 0
Jack Wilshere set Arsenal on their way to qualification from the Champions League group stages for the 13th successive season as Montpellier were brushed aside at the Emirates.
With Schalke defeating Olympiakos 1-0 in Germany, the qualifiers from Group B are decided with one game to spare although top spot is still up for grabs heading into the last games on December 4.
Arsenal had to be patient, but once Wilshere had broken the French champions’ resistance early in the second half there was never any question about the result. A glorious second from Lukas Podolski, with a left-footed volley more than a little reminiscent of Robin van Persie, put an end to the jitters.
It was Wilshere’s first goal for the Gunners for over two years, and only his fifth in total in his still fledgling Arsenal career, but the smile on the 20-year-old’s face said it all.
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It was one replicated by Wenger at the end. Arsenal have not always convinced in this Champions League group, but unlike some of their more moneyed Premier League rivals they are safely through to the knockout stages and can treat the trip to Athens in a fortnight’s time as a chance for a little late winter sun.
Even if most supporters had spent the match discussing the situation across town at Chelsea, Arsenal had their own business to attend to here.
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Montpellier may have arrived already eliminated, but they still had the hope of reaching the Europa League, and had shown enough in the opening group game in France to be taken seriously.
Wenger had stuck with the side which had defeated Spurs on Saturday, with the exception of the injured Theo Walcott, for whom Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came in rather than the fit-again Gervinho.
After Laurent Koscielny’s header had rattled the crossbar early on, Wojciech Szczesny had to be quick off his line to foil Anthony Mounier, a clear warning sign for the Gunners that the French side had not just come to make up the numbers.
Arsenal, perhaps still a little in celebration mode from the weekend’s victory, took time to settle, and did not create another decent chance until the half-hour mark when Podolski twisted away from defenders at the edge of the box and screwed a shot just the wrong side of an upright.
The German had another chance five minutes later after being slipped in by Santi Cazorla, but again missed the target from a narrow angle. Arsenal were not getting too anxious but the Emirates crowd were aware that this was a night when only victory would suffice.
That was still the feeling at half-time, but evidently Wenger had reminded his players of the value of this game at the break because they emerged looking immediately sharper and had broken the deadlock within five minutes of the restart.
Thomas Vermaelen, again deployed at left-back despite the reappearance of Kieran Gibbs on the bench, was the instigator, curling over a cross which was nodded back across goal by Olivier Giroud and Wilshere had timed his run perfectly to arrive and clip the ball over the advancing Geoffrey Jourdren.
That changed the complexion of the game, and although Montpellier did briefly threaten they fell further behind on 62 minutes to a wonderful goal from Podolski.
The German had seemed becalmed for much of October after a promising start to life in red and white, but goals in his last two league games have added some zip and he always looked lively here.
Little seemed on when he looked to exchange passes with Giroud, but when the Frenchman flicked a return pass, Podolski had stolen a yard on his marker and thumped a superb left-footed volley into the net past a helpless Jourdren.
All Arsenal fans now needed to hear was that Schalke had done their bit by defeating Olympiakos in Gelsenkirchen, and when news of a goal for the Germans filtered through, all Gooners headed home happy.
The Gunners will need to win in Athens in two weeks’ time to have a chance of topping the group, but the important business of qualification has been attained.
Now Wenger can turn his attentions to domestic matters, and two tough-looking away trips to Aston Villa and Everton in the next week. On this evidence, Arsenal are well equipped to prosper.
Arsenal: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Arteta (Gervinho, 84), Cazorla (Coquelin, 84), Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Ramsey, 69) Giroud, Podolski.
Subs not used: Mannone, Arshavin, Jenkinson, Gibbs.
Booked: Cazorla, Giroud, Koscielny.
Montpellier: Jourdren, Deplagne, Congre, El Kaoutari, Bedimo, Yanga M’Biwa, Estrada, Cabella (Herrara, 69), Belhanda, Mounier, Charbonnier (Martin, 68).
Subs not used: Pionnier, Hilton, Marveaux, Pitau, Jeunechamp.
Referee: Firat Aydinus (Turkey)