Arsenal began their Champions League campaign with a potentially vital three points on the road through a 2-1 victory over Marseille. With a group also featuring the might of Borussia Dortmund and Napoli that looks the strongest on paper of all the sections, Arsene Wenger will have been delighted to get three points on the board right away and secure a sixth-straight win in all competitions.
Despite being the second seeds in the group, Marseille have been subscribed the role of outsiders to make it through. Yet, it was no easy night for Arsenal in the imposing Stade Velodrome. Marseille had the better of the first half and it was only a fine piece of defending from the impressive Kieran Gibbs that prevented the hosts taking the lead at the start of the second.
Instead it was Arsenal that got the vital opening goal as a defensive howler from Jeremy Morel allowed Theo Walcott to thump home a close-range volley in the 64th minute. With Marseille not having the required quality in the final third, Arsenal were able to see off any threat of an equalizer before Aaron Ramsey struck a match-clinching second goal with six minutes remaining. There was frustration at a clean sheet being thrown away in injury time with Ramsey’s clumsy challenge on Andre Ayew leading to a penalty being converted by the Ghanaian’s bother Jordan, but there was no time to make it matter.
Arsenal next play the other winners from Group F’s opening night, Napoli, at the Emirates in two weeks’ time. A victory there would already put them well on their way to progressing for a 14th successive season, before a difficult double-header against last season’s finalists Dortmund.
Arsenal looked threatening in the early stages in the south of France, particularly when trying to get Walcott in behind. The winger had a shot from a difficult angle comfortably saved as well as a header blocked after Mesut Ozil crossed from the left.
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But Arsenal became increasingly subdued as the first-half progressed. The visitors didn’t cope well with Marseille’s pressing and were too often careless in possession. Yet, while Elie Baup’s side were confident on the ball they struggled when it came to the final third.
Mathieu Valbuena, as expected, was the man most likely to make things happen for Marseille. After an early shot, he played the key role in his side’s best move of the opening 45 minutes with a pass to get Dimitri Payet in behind before the winger’s cross was just taken away from Andre Ayew in the middle.
The best chances of the opening half, though, came from two Marseille headers. First Ayew just missed the target from 12 yards before Andre-Pierre Gignac powered a header over from a near-post corner when he really should have found the target.
While the first half had simmered and promised much, the match boiled into an end-to-end spectacle at the start of the second. Perhaps sensing how valuable three points would be, given the quality of fellow group members Borussia Dortmund and Napoli, both sides began to take more chances.
Arsenal carried far more impetus and tested Steve Mandanda for the first time through Gibbs, after a glorious back-heel by Ozil, and a volley by Jack Wilshere with which the midfielder might have done more.
Marseille also threatened, with Payet forcing Wojciech Szczesny into a smart save at his near post. Then there was almost a catastrophe at the back for Arsenal to gift Marseille the opening goal. Per Mertesacker completely miss-kicked a clearance at the near post over the head of Sczesny and it was only the quick reactions of Gibbs to get back and head off the line that prevented Gignac heading in a certain goal.
As fate would have it, it was a similarly slapstick moment of defending at the other end just minutes later that gifted Arsenal their priceless opening goal. Left-back Jeremy Morel stooped low to try and head away a Gibbs cross but only succeeded in setting it up perfectly for Walcott behind him to smash an unstoppable volley from the corner of the six yard box past Mandanda.
With Valbuena lacking the quality support to break through an Arsenal team that grew in comfort after taking the lead, Marseille never came close to getting back on level terms. And with Marseille pushing forward, Arsenal grabbed a second as Ramsey continued his fine goal-scoring start to the season. The Welsh midfielder burst through the center and into the box before firing a low shot that beat Mandanda with the help of a deflection off of Nicolas N’Koulou.
Ramsey’s aberration in his own box produced a temporary hiccup to the confidence on the Arsenal bench but substitute Jordan Ayew’s penalty was too little too late for a Marseille side that already faces a massive uphill task to progress.