Arsenal goalkeeper Vito Mannone grateful to have been to Hull and back
After only one "matchday" to use Uefa's favoured terminology, Group B of the Champions League is already taking the predicted shape. On Tuesday night the two most-fancied teams both won away by two goals to one: Arsenal in Montpellier and Schalke at Olympiakos of Greece. This suggests that the double-header between them in the middle of the campaign will decide who wins the section. The first of those games is at the Emirates on 24 October and the return in Germany a fortnight later, when Arsène Wenger will finally be back on the touchline and in the dressing room after serving his three-match ban.
Despite having reached the second stage for 12 successive seasons, Arsenal have suffered in the past from finishing as runners-up, receiving a tougher draw in the first knockout round, and that is a fate they would like to avoid this time. Having said that, the unfashionable French champions pushed them hard enough in their atmospheric Stade de Mosson to convince Mikel Arteta, for one, that they should not be ruled out of contention yet. "They created some problems for us and if they continue to play like that they can get one of the top two places in the group," the Arsenal midfielder said.
His team had shrugged off an early deficit to score twice in as many minutes shortly afterwards but in the second half they were outplayed and it was not surprising that Steve Bould, standing in for Wenger, confessed to "a headache and a half" as pressure built up on and off the pitch.
By the time of the final group match, however, the London side would ideally want to be travelling to Athens having already won the section, which was exactly the position a year ago. On that occasion, Vito Mannone was given a rare opportunity in goal after Lukas Fabianski was injured, but he failed to take it, committing a howler for the second goal in a 3-1 defeat and being packed off on loan to Hull City a month later.
This season he has looked much more confident when deputising for Wojciech Szczesny. Younes Belhanda's cheeky chipped "Panenka" penalty on Tuesday was the only time he has been beaten in three games and his save in the last 10 minutes from the same player, who was only a few yards out, preserved the three points.
Speaking afterwards, the Italian credited his period on Humberside with restoring his self-belief. "Nobody wants to go there really, but I found myself really well," he said. "I found a good club and gained experience. I played 24 games in a row so that's what I needed."
Another player needing to demonstrate mental strength is Theo Walcott, who has not started since the opening game of the season and appeared on Tuesday only as a time-wasting last-minute substitute. The England winger has yet to agree a new contract and although Arsenal decided to hang on to him in the summer transfer window, the form shown by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and now Gervinho, who justified his selection down the right in Montpellier with a driving performance, appear to have made a January parting of the ways more likely.
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