Arsenal FC are nothing if not consistent and have once again successfully negotiated the UEFA Champions League group stage. It was not all straightforward for the north London side, but they are nonetheless back in the familiar surrounds of the last 16 of Europe's elite club competition.
Story so far
Arsenal qualified with a match to spare thanks to a 2-0 home win against French champions Montpellier Hérault SC. Victory at Olympiacos FC on matchday six would have earned top spot in the section but they fell to a 2-1 defeat in Arsène Wenger's 150th UEFA Champions League game as coach.
Group B was a mixed bag for the Gunners, who opened their campaign by coming from behind to win at Montpellier. Negatives came in the form of a first UEFA Champions League loss at the Arsenal Stadium when FC Schalke 04 prevailed 2-0 on matchday three, and in allowing a two-goal lead slip to draw 2-2 in Germany a fortnight later.
Jack Wilshere's first Arsenal goal in two years gave them the lead at home to Montpellier. The English international midfielder had only recently returned from 17 months out with an ankle injury and his cool finish from a classy Olivier Giroud knockdown sent Arsenal on their way to the three points. That – combined with Schalke beating Olympiacos the same night – sealed a last-16 berth.
Lukas Podolski's three goals, including a sumptuous volley at home to Montpellier, and an assist are worthy of recognition, as are outstanding displays from Giroud at Schalke and when his former club Montpellier came to north London. Yet the player who had the Arsenal faithful purring was Spanish midfielder Santi Cazorla, a summer arrival from Málaga CF, and the man who dictated the Gunners' style and tempo.
It is perhaps no accident that Wojciech Szczęsny's first Champions League match of the season – when he returned from an ankle injury to face Montpellier – coincided with his team's a first clean sheet in five attempts. At 22, Szczęsny will hope it is third time lucky in the round of 16 after shipping four at AC Milan last season having being forced off injured at FC Barcelona the previous campaign, in only his second UEFA Champions League appearance.
Arsenal have qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League for the 13th season running. Their best performance was reaching the final in 2006 when, despite taking the lead with ten men through Sol Campbell in Paris, they went down 2-1 to Barcelona.
"It is a massive satisfaction because I have my back to the wall so many times, accused of not spending fortunes. To show that we can do it, the way we do it, with the club in a good financial situation and with players coming through our youth development, I think it is important for the game as well. There are many different ways to be successful and I am very happy that our way is one of them."
Wenger shows his delight that his long-standing philosophy has once again reaped reward.
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