Arsenal's record of never having lost a tie away to a French team survived a lively night against a club playing their first European Cup tie who deserved a draw from it. Montpellier took the lead from an early penalty, then conceded twice in quick succession to Lukas Podolski and Gervinho before missing some late chances as Arsenal were forced back for most of the second half.
The London side, who have reached the second stage of the competition for the past 12 seasons, usually come through the opening group match – it is now seven wins and two draws from the last nine such occasions – but this ended up as one of the more nervous ones. It was alarming the way they fell away later on after playing some neat football in the first half, with Santi Cazorla prominent in his favoured role just behind the main striker.
That attacker was, after all, Olivier Giroud, who although he has still not scored since his £9.7m transfer from Montpellier, justified his selection by having a hand in both Arsenal goals. Arsène Wenger, serving the first of a three-match ban for having abused the referee after elimination from the Champions League by Milan last season, had made an important decision on Monday, deciding that Giroud should start against the team for whom he scored 21 goals last season, helping them to a first French title.
He received a warm reception before kick-off and a slightly cooler one when substituted, having contributed to putting the skids under his old team-mates. Gervinho, who took the central striker's role in the 6-1 drubbing of Southampton last weekend, scoring his first goals of the year, found himself shifted to the right wing to the exclusion of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but he too played a part, linking well with the other attacking players and adding a predator's goal himself.
Steve Bould, promoted only in the summer to first-team duties, stood in for Wenger at the post-match briefing, prompting the thought that he might one day be doing so on a permanent basis. He quickly proved that he has learned the Sven Goran Eriksson managerial dictum of games of two halves: "First half we were excellent, the second half was tough," he declared. "We looked physically a little bit tired and the crowd got right behind them. It's quite an intimidating place to come, so we're delighted with the result."
He had particular praise for Podolski, "I've not seen many finishers as good as him" and Giroud, who "did a really good team job".
Both certainly played their part as Arsenal recovered strongly from the shock of the opening few minutes, in which Abou Diaby received a yellow card after only 20 seconds and Vito Mannone, in for the injured Wojciech Szczesny, soon conceded his first goal of the season after clean sheets in his previous outings against Sunderland and Stoke. Thomas Vermaelen as an experienced international and captain should have known better than to lunge at Younès Belhanda, who was drifting away from goal and was right on the edge of the penalty area. One of Uefa's extra assistants was close enough to consider it a foul and Belhanda stood up and calmly chipped in from the spot, right down the centre as Mannone moved to his right.
The midfielder, France's young player of the year last season, had said that if Montpellier played as badly here as they did in the 3-1 defeat away at Reims on Friday, they would "concede eight". There was never any danger of that but the crowd were briefly stunned as Arsenal came back to score two goals in as many minutes.
On quarter of an hour a fine short passing move flowed through Diaby, Cazorla and Giroud, who played in Podolski for an efficient finish – his third goal in successive games for Arsenal. In almost the next attack Giroud was again involved, setting up the overlapping right-back Carl Jenkinson to cross low and give Gervinho a tap-in.
Twice more Arsenal might have scored in breakaways before the interval. Gervinho took a pass from the busy Cazorla and bustled inside but his shot was blocked; then Kieran Gibbs, sent down the left touchline by the Spaniard, crossed for Giroud who volleyed wide. A goal for the striker would have been the perfect prelude to Bould's half-time talk. Instead the coach would doubtless have warned against precisely what followed: Montpellier coming out for the second half full of running and coming close to equalising on several occasions.
Rémy Cabella shot wide after Diaby dallied on the ball and then from fully 25 yards out the same player chipped against the bar with Mannone groping. It was something of a brief respite when Cazorla supplied Diaby for a shot beaten out by Geoffrey Jourdren.
With quarter of an hour to play Bould, whether off his own bat or not, bolstered up the midfield by bringing on Aaron Ramsey for Giroud. Montpellier continued to make the running and 10 minutes from the end Belhanda was set up perfectly and even had time to compose himself in turning away from Per Mertesacker but from barely eight yards out he shot straight at the relieved Mannone.
There was even a late penalty scare, which might have rounded off the evening on a symmetrical note. This time, however, all French appeals fell on deaf ears after Diaby had challenged Cabella and 900 relieved visiting supporters had an opening victory to celebrate. Their team had made hard work of it.
Man of match Cazorla.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee C V Carballo (Sp).