Two excellent second-half goals gave Arsenal a 2-0 win over Montpellier at the Emirates Stadium, a result that saw the Gunners qualify from Champions League Group B.
Following a dreary opening 45 minutes, Arsenal burst into life after half-time as Jack Wilshere’s first goal in nearly two years and a wonder-strike from Lukas Podolski put them in charge against the well-organised but uninspiring French side.
The goals gave Arsenal confidence to push for a third, but the delightful build-up play was not capped off with any additional goals.
Schalke’s 1-0 win over Olympiacos in Germany means that both Arsenal and the Gelsenkirchen side qualify for the last 16, with the final round of matches set to decide who tops the group.
A poor first half saw Arsenal control possession but lack ideas and a cutting edge, looking jittery in defence on the occasion Rene Girard’s well-drilled side hit them on the break.
It was particularly disappointing given Arsenal’s 5-2 win over Tottenham last weekend, as they reverted to the tendency to overpass and shirk responsibility in the final third, former Montpellier striker Olivier Giroud toiling at times, although he was excellent in the second half with two assists.
With the direct Theo Walcott absent through injury, Arsenal’s only truly dangerous moments were two shots just wide by Podolski, and a Laurent Koscielny header off the bar.
Montpellier, meanwhile, were restricted to long-range efforts from the lively Remy Cabella and Younes Belhanda, while Wojciech Szczesny made a fine stop at the feet of Anthony Mounier after Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa – playing in midfield – sent the former Lyon forward through.
But soon after the restart Arsenal were in front. It was a refreshingly direct approach that led to Wilshere’s first goal since his 14-month injury nightmare, the last having come just shy of two years ago.
Thomas Vermaelen, playing left-back in the absence of Andre Santos, sent over the kind of hanging cross that Giroud thrives on. The Frenchman knocked it down for the late arrival of Wilshere, who casually flicked out a left boot to send a cute finish past the onrushing Geoffrey Jourdren.
Montpellier tried to fight back but were not overly threatening. Indeed, the hosts were denied two good counter-attacking runs on goal when Podolski and Giroud were erroneously flagged offside after running off a highish line from the French side.
They still doubled their lead soon afterwards, and in some style. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain initiated the move with a mazy run inside from the right, before a delightful one-two between Giroud and Podolski saw the France striker flick it up for the German to unleash the kind of volley that Robin van Persie had trademarked.
That put any hopes of a Montpellier comeback to bed, with Arsenal coming close to a third as Cazorla and Giroud forced good stops from Jourdren, while Mikel Arteta sent a free-kick inches wide.
The visitors had barely tested the hosts in the second half, with Emanuel Herrera’s injury-time effort wide their best chance as Arsenal wound down the clock.
The news that Schalke had beaten Olympiacos was greeted with as much fan joy as an Arsenal goal, as the group favourites lived up to their tags by qualifying with a game to spare.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Lukas Podolski - Arsenal: The Germany forward was a marauding presence on the left, and scored a magnificent goal. Edges Giroud by virtue of his good first-half performance.
ARSENAL: Szczęsny 6, Sagna 7, Mertesacker 6, Vermaelen 7, Koscielny 6, Arteta 6, Wilshere 7, Cazorla 7, Oxlade-Chamberlain 7, Podolski 8, Giroud 7. Subs: Ramsey 6, Coquelin N/A, Gervinho N/A.
MONTPELLIER: Jourdren 6, Bedimo 6, Deplagne 5, El Kaoutari 6, Congré 6, Yanga-Mbiwa 6, Estrada 6, Cabella 6, Belhanda 6, Mounier 5, Charbonnier 5. Subs: Marveaux N/A, Martin 6, Herrera 6.