Montpellier Hérault SC 1-2 Arsenal: An Injustice Overcome

I have to admit - with Manchester City away looming on the horizon, I was afraid that this might have been a classic trap game. That is, of course, despite the fact that Ligue 1 is crap and winning it is akin to being the world's tallest midget. Still, away matches in the Champions League are usually tricky no matter who the opposition is, so for Arsenal to come from behind to win the game on the road was a tremendous show of fight and character from the men in red.

In other words, the revival is still well and truly on.

Perhaps with respect to the aforementioned lack of easy matches, there was not nearly as much rotation as there could have been. Andre Santos and Laurent Koscielny again ended the day as unused substitutes, with only Vito Mannone, Olivier Giroud and Abou Diaby returning to the team that eviscerated Southampton.

Given the injury to former Portsmouth man John Utaka, the only guy I had heard of among today's opponents was right back Garry Bocaly (and this is even with my status as a Football Manager addict). That hardly mattered though given the fact that for much of the first half, referee Carlos Vellasco Carballo may as well have been wearing the dark blue shirt of the home side.

It only took 20 seconds for him to book Diaby for a challenge that, while dumb and reckless, was not malicious in any way. Needless to say, there were similar tackles going the other way throughout the match that went unpunished. The worst was yet to come, though.

The home side began the match with the giddy electricity of a side dining at the adults' table for the first time. Once Arsenal got the ball though, they largely maintained possession while looking for an opening. Santi Cazorla drilled an early free kick against the wall, but it was when Montpellier broke the other way that Carballo's influence gifted them a lead they didn't remotely deserve.

The ball came to Younès Belhanda inside the penalty area, but he was fairly shouldered off the ball with a strong challenge from Thomas Vermaelen. I honestly don't know if it was the referee who ended up blowing for the spot kick or if it was the guy behind the net, but after 4 or 5 seconds they finally handed the home side the penalty. TV5 was rightfully incredulous - that was one of the softest decisions I have seen in quite some time. Belhanda took it himself, and utilized the Paneka chip that is all the rage with the kids these days. Mannone has already committed, and Montpellier were ahead.

Honestly, should we be surprised that our opponents were essentially handed a goal free of charge a day or two after Arsene Wenger (rightfully, in my view) called out UEFA on their hypocrisy and incompetence? Even Inspector Lestrade could work this one out without Sherlock's assistance, I feel.

We've all seen Arsenal collapse in these situations before. Even now, despite all available empirical evidence to the contrary so far this season, I thought they might once again. A grave injustice had been done, which if nothing else should prepare us nicely for that world-class bell-end Mike Dean working our game against City at the weekend.

Fifteen minutes were gone, with the men in red down 1-0 away from home to a suddenly-frisky Montpellier side. Hardly an ideal situation, but it took the Gunners three minutes to sprint into a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

While many of our goals this term have come from lightning-fast attacks, today's equalizer took the scenic route to get there. Arsenal had one attack repelled, played it back to the defense, and patiently built out again in a move that comprised of exactly 20 passes. The second go-round saw Diaby play a killer ball to Cazorla, who in turn touched it onto Giroud. The Montpellier defense was a ragged mess at this stage, the two right-sided men playing Lukas Podolski on as their former colleague dinked the ball through to him. The left center-half was playing a one-man offside trap about 5 yards ahead of the play, while the left back opted to stay with Gervinho, who was irrelevant to the play. To top it off, the home keeper Geoffrey Jourdren lost his footing and fell over, leaving the German with the easiest of finishes.  

This, friends, is the difference between a seasoned club at this level and naive debutantes. Before the home side could come to grips with the fact that they had lost the lead, they found themselves trailing. Arsenal saw an opening to go for the jugular, and they struck without mercy.

Gervinho both started and finished the move, continuing his...I don't know if you can call it a rebirth because he arguably has never been as good in his entire career as he has been so far this season. Cazorla played it out to him on the wing, and as far as I can tell (FSC decided to put a chyron on screen covering the action at that exact second), he did wonderfully well to beat his man inside, then evade the second covering midfielder. Normally, that level of ability in the slalom wins a gold medal for some dude from Norway. He used wonderful close control to play it back to the Spaniard, but the defender did brilliantly well to get it away to safety on the touchline. Sadly for him though, Carl Jenkinson had followed the play and was in perfect position to collect the loose ball. His early cross was both perfectly-timed and gorgeously-weighted. If he keeps doing that, I'll gladly eat a double helping of crow and come back for seconds. The Ivorian had ghosted between the blue-clad statues in central defense, and hammered a shot past Jourdren (who almost kept it out, to his credit).

This is not the Arsenal of the last few years. Where once the red-and-white lay callow, now it stands defiant. I was wrong about this lot, although in my defense so were a great many others.

The home side's gameplan was largely to counter at speed in the rare instances they had the ball, but Arsenal dealt with it fairly comfortably. The midfield was quick to drop back and assist, and the men in blue couldn't find the space to run into or the passing lanes to exploit (one notable incident saw Giroud come all the way back to shepherd Anthony Mounier off the ball with Jenkinson beaten) . Later in the second half, they shifted focus to more of a patient build-up, and in turn began to find some gaps.

There was even a minor scare as Rémy Cabella cut in from the wing and beat Kieran Gibbs for pace. He gave it a right old go from outside the penalty area, but Mannone plunged to his left to get two strong hands behind the shot. A decent save at a big time, it has to be said.

That took us to halftime, and after 45 minutes it had to be said that Arsenal were solid defensively once again. But, it also has to be said that the backline creaked a bit in the second stanza, and a better side would have punished us far more severely.

It all started just three minutes after the restart. Diaby, who had such a storming first half, was badly at fault as he conceded possession in our own penalty area and fell over in the process. Cabella was alone with only Mannone to beat, but his composure failed him and his ballooned shot just about stayed in the stadium. That was a hell of a let-off there, to be sure.

The home side were finding a lot more joy, and after a few half-chances they were unlucky to strike the woodwork. That man Cabella was at it again, tormenting Per Mertesacker with his movement before curling a wonderful effort over Mannone. Luckily for us, it didn't arc downwards enough to sneak under the crossbar.

Montpellier didn't have it all their own way, though. The visitors could well have iced the game had Cazorla found a better finish when put through by Diaby. The angle was tight though, and Jourdren had it well covered. Great play from the Frenchman though, who held off a circle of defenders before finding his teammate with the pass.

That flurry of action couldn't be sustained by either side, and the match slowed to a crawl over the next fifteen minutes. Aaron Ramsey came on for Giroud, but he didn't quite get into the game.

Frankly I would have liked to have seen some substitutions from interim manager Steve Bould earlier on, as I felt there was an opportunity for fresh legs to come in and kill the game off. Instead, a tired-looking Arsenal were almost made to pay in the 80th minute. Belhanda could have bagged himself a brace after he torched Mertesacker, who had uncharacteristically gone to ground rashly and taken himself out of the play. He was dead central in the penalty area and only had Mannone to beat, but he could only shovel a weak effort directly into the Italian stopper's arms. It was a dreadful effort, and once again I stress that a competent opponent would likely have won the game today.

Still, credit has to be given to the side for taking advantage of our opponents' mistakes and seeing out the game with no further incident. Francis Coquelin and Theo Walcott came on for rather pointless cameos, though the subs did take some time off the clock if nothing else. Again, Walcott in particular should have been deployed 20 minutes before he was called on.

So, in the end, this was three points gained that so easily could have been one or zero. You can only play what is in front of you, and if we had to labor our way past the French champions in order to be more ready for much more daunting challenges ahead, I am beyond fine with that and you should be too.

City on Sunday, then. Bring them on.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Mannone 7, Gibbs 7, Mertesacker 6, Vermaelen 7, Jenkinson 7, Podolski 8 (Walcott N/A), Arteta 7, Diaby 8, Cazorla 7 (Coquelin N/A), Gervinho 8, Giroud 7 (Ramsey N/A)

Man of the Match:  Jenkinson had a good game before faltering a bit in the second half, and Podolski came up with another great finish. However, the award has to go to Gervinho for a blistering all-action performance that showcased all of his abilities...with an actual end product to go with it. If he can keep this up, we're going to have a brilliant player on our hands.