Wednesday 21 February 2018

Villain turns to hero to send Gunners into last 16 again

Arsenal's scorer Olivier Giroud and Per Mertesacker wave to their fans
Arsenal's scorer Olivier Giroud and Per Mertesacker wave to their fans

Jeremy Wilson

It has taken 10 months but, as Olivier Giroud looked to the sky and then fell to the floor after scoring both his and Arsenal's crucial second goal last night, it was not difficult to sense that a path to redemption was complete.

Giroud, remember, had been the main focus for blame when Arsenal suffered the 3-1 defeat against Monaco in February that ended their Champions League hopes last season.

He endured the ignominy that night not just of first missing a virtual open goal amid a series of clear chances but also having to hear to loud cheers from the Arsenal fans when Arsene Wenger finally took the sensible decision to substitute him.

Giroud subsequently admitted feeling "embarrassed" by his performance but even amid all the criticism there was a note of defiance.

"I will keep working hard and bounce back," Giroud said. "I have never given up in my career."

A hat-trick here at the moment of Arsenal's greatest need was emphatic proof of that fact. A Champions League campaign that appeared irreparably sunk back in September has gained unexpected buoyancy in the port city of Piraeus.

Joel Campbell, Petr Cech and Naco Monreal were also excellent but it was Giroud's spectacular contribution that sealed what has been one of the all-time great comebacks in the group phase of the Champions League.

Olympiakos, remember, had lost only against Bayern Munich in their previous 26 home fixtures but, from the moment that Giroud calmly headed Aaron Ramsey's cross inside Roberto's near post, Arsenal's progress never felt in serious doubt.

It was result that will also spare Wenger considerable criticism following a calculated gamble earlier in the season that so nearly backfired.

With both eyes clearly firmly focused this season on the opportunity to regain the Premier League title he last won in 2004, Wenger took the decision to rest and rotate key players.

David Ospina's selection ahead of Cech was the most eye catching - and baffling - decision but there had also been rare starts away to Dinamo Zagreb for Mathieu Debuchy, Kieran Gibbs and Mikel Arteta.

After losing that fixture, it was barely believable that Wenger should again drop Cech at home to Olympiacos. Wenger was adamant that his team could recover even after a second defeat then but it has still taken unlikely wins against Bayern and now here in Greece to vindicate that hope.

Wenger even rolled the dice in a different way last night. Theo Walcott had not started a match since suffering a calf injury in October but, rather than being held back as an impact substitute, he played alongside Giroud to the right of Arsenal's attack.

Wenger has been reluctant all season to play Walcott with right-back Hector Bellerin and it quickly became apparent here why. With Walcott short of match sharpness and wandering forwards, Olympiacos immediately targeted Bellerín.

Campbell's switch to the right, however, was another turning point in extending Wenger's proud record of guiding Arsenal into the last 16 of the Champions League in every season since 2000.

Having extended this achievement after flirting so closely with the Europa League, Arsenal will now go into next Monday's draw with renewed momentum.

It is perhaps fanciful to draw too many comparisons with Liverpool's similarly dramatic passage into the last 16 back in 2004-05 when they ultimately won the competition but, in sport, surviving near defeat can often provide unusual strength.

It should also aid Arsenal's Premier League title push. Wenger's joyous reaction to beating Sunderland underlined how he sees a huge opportunity this season and, after all the injuries of the past month, these past five days have provided the most timely boost. Failing in Europe would have prompted major questions of Wenger.

The days of restricted commercial income while they funded the construction of the Emirates Stadium have now passed and Arsenal are supposed to have entered an era in which they could go beyond simply reaching the last 16 of this tournament and actually challenge the recent dominance of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.

With revenues soaring towards £350m, Arsenal should be driving forwards in Europe rather than going backwards.

That they now have that chance is thanks to Giroud. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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