Going into Wednesday’s Champions League fixtures, there was a chance that only one Premier League club would advance into the knockout stages. Tuesday’s matches saw Manchester United crash out in dramatic fashion in Germany to Wolfsburg; while Manchester City pulled off a massive comeback against Borussia Mochengladbach to take the top spot in Group D. This round of fixtures put Arsenal in a must-win situation against Olympiakos and Chelsea in a deciding match against Porto.
The Gunners, who got off to a rocky start in Europe, needed to not just beat Olympiakos, but to beat them by a better score line than 1-0 or 2-1. When Arsene Wenger’s club hosted the Greeks way back in August, Arsenal suffered a disastrous 3-2 defeat. After this loss, some commentators, were writing off any hopes that the London-side had of making it out of Group F especially since they still had to take on Bayern Munich twice. Wenger’s side rallied, however, beating Bayern and Dinamo Zagreb at the Emirates in two of their next three matches and now sat with the chance to advance to the Round of 16.
A hostile crowd awaited the Gunners in Athens, but the support didn’t appear to faze Arsenal at all. After a little over 20 minutes had gone in the match, the visitors had the game’s first real chance. Joel Campbell, who spent the 2013/14 season on loan at Olympiakos, made a quality run on the right wing and sent in a tempting cross that was slightly behind Mathieu Flamini. The veteran midfielder was forced into an awkward shot that took a deflection before banging off the woodwork.
It would take just four minutes for the Gunners to rebound from this missed chance to find the match’s opening goal. Olivier Giroud, who had an earlier header denied by Roberto Gago, managed to get on the end of an Aaron Ramsey cross and the ball just barely snuck by Gago’s hand to put the Gunners ahead. An errant deflection from Laurent Koscielny nearly pulled the hosts level in the 39th minute, but the ball flew over the crossbar and Arsenal went into the break in the lead, but still needing a goal to advance.
Minutes after the restart, it looked as if Wenger’s squad was about to take another massive injury blow as Giroud required the physios attention after an awkward twist of the ankle. The slight knock would keep the 29-year-old out of the match for no more than a couple minutes, and a collective sigh from Arsenal fans across the globe could almost be heard through the broadcast.
Almost seconds after his return, Giroud again made his presence known on the match. Some nifty footwork from Campbell on the edge of the penalty area gave the Costa Rican space to play a beautiful reverse pass into the path of the French striker’s run. He made no mistake as he placed his shot past Gago once again to score a potentially pivotal goal for the Gunners and secure his brace for the day.
The dagger for the Gunners would finally come in the 67th minute thanks to a third goal from their in-form striker. A well-timed forward run from Nacho Monreal saw the defender’s ensuing shot blocked by the hands of a sliding Omar Elabdellaoui in the penalty area. Giroud stepped up for the spot kick and promptly sent Gago the wrong way as he slotted his effort into the bottom left corner and sealed his first ever hat trick for the club.
Giroud’s goal meant that if Olympiakos were to qualify for the knockout rounds, they would need to score three goals in the final 20+ minutes against an Arsenal defense that had effectively silenced them all match. There was no such comeback from the hosts as the crowd fell silent and the wind left their sails. When the final whistle blew, Arsenal sat with a massive victory and a place in the Round of 16.
The result pushed Arsenal into the second spot of Group F behind the leaders, Bayern Munich. The second place finish means that the Gunners could draw a very tough matchup in the knockout round, but they’ll be happy to still be in the tournament. This year’s tournament has a hidden importance for English clubs outside of claiming the title because if none of them qualify for the quarterfinals, then the Premier League will lose a spot in next year’s tournament. With Arsenal now joining Man City and Chelsea in the Round of 16, the chances of one club reaching the quarterfinals greatly improves, but it’s anything but a guarantee.