A year ago this week Arsenal embarked on their Champions League campaign in a state of minor crisis.
A narrow win over Swansea had barely blurred the memory of a nightmare start to the season which produced one point from the first three matches, culminating in the 8-2 thrashing at Old Trafford. Two players had been sent off, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri had deserted at the 11th hour, and Arsène Wenger was trying to integrate a quartet of deadline acquisitions signed with the haste of a trolley dash. With both Manchester clubs already eight points ahead, the title was gone with the season barely begun.
Respectability, and a Champions League place, were rescued largely off the back of Robin van Persie's 30 goals but, although the Dutchman has since joined the talent exodus, Arsenal are far happier now than 12 months ago. The evisceration of Southampton on Saturday leaves them just two points off leaders Chelsea and in improving form.
"Last year we had a very bad start and were out of the title race in September; that was very difficult mentally," said Wenger. "This year we have the luck to have started better. We look like a real team who enjoy playing together. The play now is maybe a bit more diversified. Van Persie was a team player, but he scored 30 goals and when you score 30 goals everybody gives you the ball. We will know after 10 games if we can challenge for the title; I think we have a chance but let's see how we deal with the big games."
The first of those is on Sunday, when Arsenal travel to the defending champions for a contest that will be far more demanding than pointless Southampton offered. "It will provide a test," added Wenger. "What is at stake is to maintain the level of performance ."
This year's start owes much to Wenger completing his transfer dealings in good time, with Lukas Podolski signed early in the summer and Santi Cazorla before the season began. The pair again shone, with Podolski's directness and Cazorla's cunning tearing Saints' shaky defence apart.
In the first half two own goals bookended a smart free-kick by Podolski and a Gervinho strike that justified Wenger's decision to try him at centre-forward. The Ivorian added a tap-in in the second period before Theo Walcott completed the rout. The only disappointments for Wenger were Olivier Giroud's continued failure to get off the mark – the ball just wouldn't fall to him during his 15 minutes on the pitch – and the error by Wojciech Szczesny which allowed Daniel Fox a consolation. Not that he will have to surrender his place, despite Vito Mannone keeping clean sheets when deputising.
"Szczesny is No 1, unless I change my mind," said Wenger. "You cannot change the keeper every time he makes a mistake because in the end you have three bad keepers. It is a special position where confidence is needed."
Southampton have more serious problems between the sticks. Kelvin Davis, like his central defenders, is struggling at this level but the alternative is rookie Paulo Gazzaniga, whose only experience is 20 League Two matches for Gillingham last year.
Not that this should rule him out. Southampton's best player was 17-year-old James Ward-Prowse, who was playing his fourth match. Here, as against Manchester City and Manchester United, he did not look out of place. Even as the goals rained in he kept demanding the ball and looked to use it wisely. Saints may now be Premier League but it cannot be long before he follows Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out of the club, and maybe to Arsenal.
Montpellier go down again
Arsenal's Champions League hopes received a further boost after tomorrow's opponents, the French champions Montpellier, continued their poor start with a 3-1 defeat at newcomers Reims on Saturday. Diego put the seal on a fine move to put the hosts ahead shortly before half-time, only for Montpellier to level through Rémy Cabella early in the second. Christopher Glombard and substitute Gaaetan Courtet secured the points to leave Montpellier in the bottom five in Ligue 1.
Man of match Gervinho.
Ref K Friend (Leics).
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