Arsène Wenger may be running out of players but Arsenal’s resilience shows no sign of abating. With eight members of his first-team squad unavailable, the Gunners’ line-up virtually picked itself tonight yet they maintained their poise – albeit riding their luck at times – to record their 10th consecutive away victory and start Group F in the best way possible.
This was a cagey affair for an hour or so, with both teams aware that a positive start to the group was vital with Borussia Dortmund and Napoli to come. But then Theo Walcott gave Arsenal the lead with his first goal of the season and Aaron Ramsey struck late on, before a late Marseilles penalty halved the winning margin but not the feelgood factor in the visitors’ dressing room.
Ramsey’s goal was his seventh of this campaign and the strides he has made epitomises the optimism that permeates through this team with sterner challenges to come and, hopefully, other players to return.
Wenger made only one change from the team that defeated Sunderland 3-1 last weekend, with Per Mertesacker resuming central defensive duties and Bacary Sagna shifting to right-back with Carl Jenkinson dropped to the bench.
Despite the absence of the eight players through injury, Wenger still felt sufficiently confident in the strength of his starting line-up, especially with £42.4million signing Mesut Ozil available to be the creative catalyst behind in-form striker Olivier Giroud. And that confidence proved correct.
Both the Stade Vélodrome and Arsenal are works in progress but while this venue has Euro 2016 as its completion date, Wenger’s timescale is much more immediate.
His players started adequately enough here, although Marseilles were more threatening in the opening period. Wenger claimed at Tuesday evening’s press conference that Andre-Pierre Gignac “has this conviction he will score” and the Marseilles striker proved single-minded early on with two sighters on Wojciech Szczesny’s goal.
Walcott’s pace on the right flank was a predictable cause for concern to left-back Jeremy Morel, and the England winger may have had a case for a penalty had he gone down under strong pressure instead of tamely shooting at goal.
Of Marseilles’ 21 wins in Ligue 1 last season, 18 were achieved by a one-goal margin and 12 ended 1-0. It should have therefore come as no surprise that the home side were happy to cede territory and look to strike on the counter attack; André Ayew nearly executed their gameplan perfectly when heading Dimitri Payet’s 22nd-minute cross just past Szczesny’s right-hand post.
Four minutes later, Arsenal had another penalty appeal turned down when Alaixys Romao’s raised boot connected with Mertesacker as he looked to flick the ball goalwards. The Gunners did not look particularly aggrieved but kicking someone in the face could certainly be deemed contact.
At the other end, Payet was beginning to make inroads on the Arsenal left – perhaps aided by Jack Wilshere playing in an unaccustomed position ahead of Kieran Gibbs as he did at Sunderland – and André Ayew headed his cross just wide.
Mertesacker then made an important interception from André Ayew’s cross and the resultant corner presented Gignac with a difficult near-post header he failed to convert.
Szczesny was forced to rush out of his goal to repel Gignac’s incisive run from the left flank and, although never quite under siege, Arsenal were probably grateful of the opportunity to reassess their strategy at half-time.
Yet Marseilles continued to threaten after the interval. Romao hooked ball across from the right and Rod Fanni drilled a volley just wide with Szczesny scrambling to cover the distance.
Ozil fired a ball across Marseilles’ penalty area that necessitated an urgent clearance from Lucas Mendes before a rare moment of ingenuity from the German midfielder released Kieran Gibbs with a delightful backheel which the left-back struck goalwards only for the keeper Steve Mandanda stop acrobatically.
Szczesny saved smartly to his left from Payet before Wilshere, hitherto a peripheral figure, missed an excellent chance to give Arsenal the lead, volleying Sagna’s cross to the far post without any real conviction, allowing Mandanda to save.
The game was starting to open up a little, with both sides sensing that victory was within their grasp. Mertesacker nearly handed Marseilles the lead when meeting Payet’s cross only to miscue his clearance and slice the ball over Szczesny. Gibbs got back inside the six-yard box to head the ball away from Gignac and into Szczesny’s grateful arms.
That interception proved vital as moments later they were in front. Gibbs delivered a dipping ball on the overlap that bounced awkwardly in front of Morel, who could only head the ball into the air, where Walcott pounced with a volleyed finish straight and true past Mandanda.
Giroud headed Walcott’s corner narrowly wide a few minutes later while Valbuena resorted to long-range efforts in a bid to regain parity for Marseilles. But Ramsey doubled Arsenal’s lead six minutes from the end with a well-struck shot from the edge of the box.
The Welshman was harshly adjudged to have brought down André Ayew in the box and his brother, substitute Jordan Ayew, netted the penalty, but Arsenal would not be denied.
Man of the match Ramsey.
Match rating 5/10.
Referee O Benquerença (Port).