Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Montpellier 1 - Arsenal 2

I did not get to see the game live yesterday, but watched it in the evening. Arsenal really dominated the first half, and were unfortunate to go down 1-0 on a pretty weak penalty call at the very edge of the box with both players facing away from goal. More than anything, the call raised the hackles of the Arsenal squad, who proceeded to take the lead back from Montpellier within 8 minutes on goals by Podolski (form a sweat flowing attack right up the center of the pitch) and Gervinho on a tap in from a beautiful cross by Jenkinson (who is looking increasingly comfortable in the right fullback position). At that point, it looked as if Arsenal might run away and hide.

The Arsenal squad that took the pitch after the halftime break looked exactly like the same players who left the pitch 15 or 20 minutes earlier, but they certainly didn't play they same. At times they looked tired or lethargic; they certainly lacked the cutting edge they showed throughout most of the first half. I wonder whether it had anything to do with the fact that Arsene Wenger was relegated to the stands (serving the first of a three-match touchline ban in the CL) and defensive guru Steve Bould was the man in charge. It really looked as if Arsenal were playing to protect their lead, rather than extend it. Many times when they got the ball, they seemed content to pass it around the defense and the midfield, forcing Montpellier players to chase, before eventually passing back to goalkeeper Manone, who would thump the ball back down to the other end of the field.

As so often happens when teams play to defend a slim lead, Arsenal invited a great deal of pressure on to their defensive third of the pitch, and the defense nearly succombed. Montpellier were unlucky not to have scored at least once in the second half, when they showed more attacking prowess than I think anyone suspected they possessed. Manone prevented a sure goal with one fabulous save (Belhanda really should have done better with his shot from point-blank range - a foot either side of the goalkeeper would have done it).

As I see it, Arsenal were lucky to escape Montpellier with the win. But as the old saying goes, it's better to be lucky than good. Arguably, Arsenal deserve a bit of luck after all the injuries and player departures of the past couple years. But they will need more than luck to progress to the late stages of the CL or challenge for the EPL title.

Next up, a big EPA match against Man City on Sunday, followed by Chelsea next week. These will be the first big tests of Arsenal's ambitions this season.

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