Arsenal enjoyed a magnificent night in Piraeus, with Olivier Giroud smashing in a hat-trick that put the Gunners into the UEFA Champions League knockout stages, 3-0, at the expense of Olympiakos.
As they have often done this season, Arsenal rose to the occasion, shaking off an indifferent start to extend what is now a 16-year streak of advancement out of Champions League group stage play. Played in a hotly partisan atmosphere, Arsenal shook off some early nerves to turn in an assured performance, sparked by unlikely hero Joel Campbell. Campbell’s ability up top — long promised by manager Arsene Wenger but rarely seen due to circumstance — was in full evidence on Wednesday night, and if there was a blemish on the game, it was that Campbell did not grab the goal he richly deserved.
"It’s fantastic for me and the team," Giroud told BT Sport after the win. "We are really pleased to go through tonight. We were not in a good position and finally we’ve done it so we’re very pleased for the club and the fans."
Needing at least two goals to advance coming into Wednesday’s game due to UEFA’s complicated tie-breaker rules, Arsenal fielded an attacking 4-1-4-1, with Giroud as a lone runner and Theo Walcott and Campbell behind in support. They didn’t have much choice: With both the creative Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla unavailable due to injury, and five other first-team players injured, this was the best lineup Arsene Wenger could field.
The thought pregame was that the Greeks would hang back and absorb, knowing that as things stood, they had already qualified. That wasn’t how the match played out. Instead, Olympiakos were surprisingly offensive at the outset, with Brown Ideye and Felipe Pardo trying to stretch the game and provide width, with Kostas Fortounis driving down the middle to target Per Mertesacker and Arsenal’s soft underbelly.
For a very nervy twenty minutes, it looked as though Olympiakos just might put this tie away. Ideye was a real handful, running down both channels, and forcing Peter Cech into a couple decent stops. Both Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal looked unnerved, and Pardo came quite close to connecting with his partner as Arsenal looked flat in the early going.
But as the half wore on, Arsenal grew into the game. Mathieu Flamini was denied a goal by the crossbar when his shot in the 14th minute was deflected over keeper Roberto and on to the wood by Manuel Da Costa. Mesut Ozil, who has been superb this season for the Gunners, began to take charge and forced a great intervention by Roberto to deny Giroud a scoring opportunity just before the half hour. And Campbell, who has been a nearly man for four years, seized the opportunity to prove his time might finally have come.
When the opener came, it felt deserved. Ozil pumped in a nice cross from the left side, and Giroud, moving toward the ball, headed it home at the near post, beating Roberto badly in the 29th minute. The keeper had a hand to it, and should have stopped it, but had hesitated, thinking Giroud’s header was going back across the face of his net.
Olympiakos did not bunker in. Ideye almost forced an own goal from Laurent Koscielny with a cutter that the defender nervously looped over his own crossbar. And defender Arthur Masuaku had two decent volleys to end the half, the first just skating wide, and the second forcing a decent if routine stop from Cech.
There were no changes after the break, and Giroud was able to double Arsenal’s advantage four minutes later. Campbell created the goal with a fine turn and hold up to allow Giroud to ghost in and receive the Costa Rican’s pass for a tap-in. That goal silenced the home crowd, but the job was not quite done yet for the Gunners.
Arsenal began to drop back perhaps too much, inviting the Greeks to come forward. Fortounis proved they still had a sting in the 58th minute with a great solo effort that forced a one-handed stop from Cech. Ideye was then saved valiantly by Koscielny’s block while standing virtually on the penalty spot.
But Arsenal were able to break the pressure when Omar Elabdellaoui slid and blocked a shot from Monreal with his hand. It was perhaps a harsh call given he was tumbling, but the ball did come off his arm and the experienced referee Nicola Rizzoli went right to the spot — Elabdellaoui, to his credit, did not complain. Giroud stepped up, juked and smashed the ball home to complete his hat trick.
The penalty conversion sealed the game, as it ensured that Olympiakos needed three goals to advance from 32 minutes. That never looked likely as their plan of snatching a quick goal and hanging on never materialized. There will now be questions about manager Marco Silva’s game-plan. Arsenal rarely looked in trouble on the night, and one wonders what might have happened if the Greeks had instead forced the Gunners to break them down.
Arsenal now will await a group-stage winner in Monday’s draw, and their recent record in the knockout round has been poor. The Gunners have not reached a quarterfinal since 2010 are likely to get a fierce opponent next. But considering their dreadful start this season in this tournament, their fans may well find their phoenix-like recovery in this year’s group stage satisfying enough.
"Nine times out of 10 in that position you are out of the group," Wenger told BT Sport after Arsenal’s victory on Wednesday night. "We needed something special to switch it on and come back like we did tonight. We needed a complete team performance and that’s what it was. Maybe it is a lucky year for us in the Champions League. You never know."
Information from FOXSoccer.com’s newswire services contributed to this report.