Qualifying from the group stages of the Champions League is nothing new for Arsenal, but successfully digging themselves out of a hole in Europe that was of their own making is unusual. Needing to win by something better than 1-0 or 2-1, it was set up for another glorious failure for the Gunners, just as against Monaco, Bayern Munich and AC Milan in recent years. The fact that Olympiacos in 2015 wasn’t added to that list of near misses was as surprising as the match was comfortable for the Gunners, as the 3-0 win was achieved with a controlled and clinical performance.
Questions will, and should, still be asked about why Arsenal were in the position of having to scramble into the knockout stages after losing the first two matches of the group, but having found themselves in a perilous position, Arsene Wenger’s team responded brilliantly by beating Bayern Munich at home and then securing three-goal victories against Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiacos. Having recovered from such a dreadful start can only beneficial for the confidence and belief of the team going into the rest of the season. Let’s be honest, especially with the potential of drawing Barcelona or Real Madrid in the next round, it is unlikely that Arsenal will win the Champions League, but in other competitions, Arsenal will be able to draw on the win in Athens as inspiration if they need to escape a tricky situation.
There were genuine fears among supporters that Arsenal would drop into the Europa League. I’m sure a lot of fans would agree with me that it would have been preferable to go out of Europe altogether, if Champions League qualification was going to elude the Gunners, rather than drop into the secondary Uefa competition, especially with Arsenal harbouring serious title ambitions this season. But the questions about what Arsenal would do in the Europa League in terms of team selection, and if there would be any impact on the league campaign, thankfully won’t need to be answered.
Arsene Wenger has always prided himself on the record Arsenal have in Europe, and the consistency the club have shown in making it out the groups, and had the Gunners gone out, especially after the dreadful early defeats to Zagreb and Olympicos, there would have been plenty of critics lining up to place blame firmly at the feet of the Arsenal manager. But against the Greeks in Athens, Arsene Wenger got his tactics right and made the right tweaks at the right times during the game to help guide the Gunners through.
Wenger was helped by all of his players showing fantastic application and focus throughout the whole game. Individual errors and losses of concentration have cost Arsenal dearly in previous glorious failures in Europe, but everyone was focused on getting the job done and saving themselves from the mess they’d created earlier in the group. There were good performances all over the pitch with Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Joel Campbell all standing out, but no-one contributed more to the win than Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman typified Arsenal’s progression throughout the group stage as he was sent off in the opening game against Zagreb, but put in a perfect centre-forward’s performance against Olympiacos as he dominated defenders, brought others into play and was clinical in front of goal.
After a slightly iffy start to the game, Arsenal grew in confidence as they put together a few promising attacking moves, with Mathieu Flamini seeing a shot deflected onto the bar following good work from Joel Campbell. As the pressure increased, Giroud came to forefront as he was on the end of a slick team move. Mesut Ozil played a sumptuous pass inside the full-back to give Aaron Ramsey space to cross towards the Frenchman in the box. Giroud made his customary move towards the near post and generated enough power with the low header to find the net, despite the keeper getting a hand to the ball.
To get through, it was always going to be vital for Arsenal to score the first goal of the game. Getting it in the first half immediately put the pressure on the home side. In front of their passionate fans, Olympiacos were suddenly a goal away from losing qualification and Arsenal sensed their opportunity. The hosts seemed slightly stuck as to what to do tactically as they were reluctant to sit deep and try and defend their position in the group, but instead looked to press higher up the pitch, which in turn created space for Mesut Ozil to feed Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell to cause Olympiacos problems in the space vacated by their midfield.
Campbell, playing against the team with whom he had a successful loan spell a few seasons ago, exploited that space brilliantly five minutes into the second half to set up Giroud for the vital second goal. Ozil played the ball over the top for the Costa Rican, who controlled the ball superbly before slotting a beautiful reverse pass in behind the defence for Giroud to charge through and confidently stroke the ball into the bottom corner.
Having got the two-goal lead they needed, Arsenal knew that a third goal would effectively kill the game off as the hosts would then need three goals themselves to knock out the Gunners. When Giroud chipped the ball to the back post, it looked like that goal might come through the unlikely source of Nacho Monreal, but his shot was blocked with an arm and the referee decided it was deserving of a penalty. After scoring two, there was only going to be one man taking it. Giroud confidently slotted the ball into the corner to complete his first Arsenal hat-trick and make the final 25 minutes very comfortable for Arsene Wenger’s team.
Giroud is an easy target for criticism as when he’s playing badly as the focal point of the attack, the team really suffers. But he’s much more consistent than he gets credit for, and when he’s on form, he can lead the line brilliantly with the physicality to bully defenders and the subtle touches to fit into Arsenal’s passing style. On a night when Arsenal needed some big performances, and without Alexis Sanchez to spark the team into life, others had to step up. Giroud did just that. There were concerns when he looked to have injured his ankle early in the second half, but the fact he got up, ran back onto the field and immediately scored his second goal added to the magnificence of the performance.
Overall, it was one of the best European away performances under Arsene Wenger because of the pressure and circumstances of the match. The challenge for the Gunners is to not make the mistakes they made earlier in the competition again later in the season. Hopefully that won’t happen, but if it does, Arsenal know they can dig themselves out of however big a hole they create by pressing the self-destruct button.