Lacazette silences Olympiakos and snatches victory for Arsenal

Mikel Arteta wanted a show of character from a side that has lacked it, and what a reward this was. Arsenal rode an early onslaught from Olympiakos and looked set for a creditable draw before going one better, Alexandre Lacazette scoring nine minutes from time after outstanding work from Bukayo Saka and meaning they achieved what only Bayern Munich had previously managed this season: winning at a venue where stronger teams than this have withered.

A place in the last 16 is now within their grasp.

The Europa League’s knockout rounds can present a slog but Arsenal could not afford to treat this tie as an inconvenience. Their best chance of playing Champions League football from August is to win this competition and their opponents, who they faced on eight occasions in a six-year spell during their days of waning influence at the top table, brought a reminder of slightly more exalted times.

Olivier Giroud’s hat-trick here in 2015, which extricated Arsenal from a sticky spot in the group stage, was the most recent of those memories. So Arsenal had already conquered one of Europe’s most febrile citadels, but none of those involved then were present now and Arteta had warned his youngsters not to melt in the heat generated from the stands.

Saka, Joe Willock and Gabriel Martinelli were enlisted from the beginning here but the identities of their senior colleagues made the manager’s priorities clear. Bernd Leno made an unheard-of European start and there was no night-off for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang either.

Rain had swept in from the Aegean sea before kick-off and Olympiakos duly produced an early storm of their own. In Mathieu Valbuena they have an evergreen 35-year-old who adds refinement to all the noise and colour; within three minutes he had drawn a parry from Leno with a volley across goal and, almost immediately afterwards, he swung a delicious left-wing cross towards the galloping Giorgos Masouras. Having done the hard part by arriving at the far post well ahead of Saka, Masouras headed over when a goal seemed certain. In the event a tight offside decision spared his blushes.

Sokratis Papastathopoulos (left) and Gabriel Martinelli close down Olympiakos’ Mathieu Valbuena.

Sokratis Papastathopoulos (left) and Gabriel Martinelli close down Olympiakos’ Mathieu Valbuena. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images

It felt, even at this stage in a two-leg tie, like a critical spell. Aubameyang offered some respite by escaping down the right but Alexandre Lacazette, well marshalled as he looked to convert the resulting centre, could not reach the ball. The red-and-white waves continued to crash in and, from another, the highly-rated left-back Kostas Tsimikas might have felt aggrieved that nobody anticipated his tantalising dinked delivery from the by-line.

The tempo in those opening 20 minutes was electric. Olympiakos apparently had few qualms leaving themselves exposed and when Martinelli retrieved an overhit lay-off from Lacazette before turning and setting up the Frenchman, an away goal should have been the punishment. But Lacazette flashed wide from eight yards and an excellent chance to subdue the crowd went begging.

Now the flow of chances was more even, Leno sparing David Luiz an own goal before José Sá reacted equally smartly to stop Martinelli inadvertently deflecting Granit Xhaka’s free-kick into the net. By half-time it was easy to see how Olympiakos had troubled Spurs enough to score four times before dropping out of the Champions League, but perfectly comprehensible that they had conceded six across those two meetings.

Arsenal could feel satisfied enough. They had grown into the game after that wild start, Willock cleaving the midfield with a couple of bursting runs and Matteo Guendouzi snapping into challenges upon returning from the naughty step on which Arteta had placed him following a disagreement during the winter break.

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The second period began in much more comfort than its predecessor and it was David Luiz, whose speculative free-kick caused Sá some fleeting concern, who asked the first question. Mohamed Camara, the home midfielder, drew howls of frustration when passing up on an opportunity of his own to shoot; when he did take aim shortly afterwards, his effort spun off Xhaka and towards a grateful Leno.

A sense persisted that, with a little more care in possession, there was more on offer for Arsenal. Arteta sought to promote it by introducing Dani Ceballos for the relatively quiet Martinelli and it was not long before the on-loan playmaker, drifting from right to left between the lines, was involved in a smart move that saw Lacazette glance Xhaka’s bending delivery wide.

Valbuena, his influence much diminished by now, forced Leno to paw away a dipping cross but the spectacle promised earlier on had not quite materialised.

Faced with increasing pressure, Arsenal composed their best move of the half and scored. Aubameyang did superbly to keep a diagonal pass in play and slip the ball infield to a marauding Saka. One of Saka’s gifts is a knack for supremely accurate delivery and this one, low and right on point, was tapped in by Lacazette.

It could have been two when Sá turned another Lacazette effort aside, and then when Sokratis Papastathopoulos hit the bar. But Arsenal had done enough to potentially turbo-charge a pallid campaign’s possibilities.


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