Arsenal came from behind to win 2-1 in an end-to-end game at Champions League debutants Montpellier Herault on Tuesday, as Arsene Wenger’s side made a winning start to their Group B campaign.
Midfielder Younes Belhanda stunned the visitors with a ninth-minute Panenka-style penalty, but Arsenal hit back through quick-fire goals from Lukas Podolski and Gervinho to secure only their sixth win in their past 16 group-phase away games.
“It was difficult,” said Arsenal assistant coach Steve Bould, who took charge of the team due to Wenger’s touchline ban. “In the first half, I thought we were excellent and kept the crowd really quiet. The second half was tough and we looked a bit tired physically. It was hot and humid. The crowd got right behind them and it’s quite an intimidating place to play, so we were pleased to get the result.”
Remy Cabella hit the bar for Montpellier, who gave Arsenal several uneasy moments, and despite the result, the hosts’ display belied a difficult start to their Ligue 1 title defense that has seen them beaten three times already.
“We can have a few regrets,” Montpellier coach Rene Girard said. “They scored two goals in two minutes and it nearly killed the match. We were a bit timid in the first half, but in the second half we were exemplary in terms of our desire and engagement, and we created a few opportunities, but at this level, you don’t get second chances.”
Arsenal have now recorded three straight victories after Premier League successes over Liverpool and Southampton, although Olivier Giroud is still without a goal after failing to score on his return to his former club.
Girard had called on the club’s fans to make the Stade de la Mosson “hell” for the visitors, but there was a nervousness in the hosts’ ranks until Belhanda’s penalty brought the stadium roaring to life.
The penalty award appeared harsh, but replays vindicated referee Carlos Velasco Carballo’s decision to penalize Thomas Vermaelen for a robust challenge on Belhanda, who beat Vito Mannone with a nonchalant chipped spot-kick.
It was a better start than Montpellier’s fans could have hoped for on their team’s first ever appearance in the competition, but within only nine minutes the French champions found themselves behind.
Giroud had received a warm reception from the supporters of his former club, but he created the equalizer in the 16th minute with a prodded through ball for fellow summer signing Podolski that the German guided past Geoffrey Jourdren.
Montpellier barely had time to gather their senses before Arsenal struck again, as Gervinho ghosted into the six-yard box to convert Carl Jenkinson’s low cross from the right.
In response, Cabella drew a save from Mannone with a low drive, while Giroud threatened to open his Arsenal account just before halftime with a volley from a Kieran Gibbs cross that flew wide.
Montpellier began to pin Arsenal back in the second period, with a succession of chances early in the half serving to raise the volume in the stadium.
Garry Bocaly and Anthony Mounier were both off-target, while Cabella fired over after dispossessing the dallying Abou Diaby and then saw a carefully weighted chip come back off the bar.
Back in the Arsenal team after injury, Diaby looked ponderous at times, but in the 57th minute he drove forward and released Santi Cazorla for a shot that Jourdren had to beat away.
Belhanda’s promptings were at the heart of much of Montpellier’s good work, but he spurned a glorious chance to bring his side level in the 80th minute.
After tip-toeing around the prone Per Mertesacker, the Moroccan playmaker found himself with a clear sight of goal, but he could only shoot straight at Mannone.