Arsenal limped past Red Star Belgrade 1-0 as Olivier Giroud’s stunning goal lit up an otherwise entirely forgettable Europa League encounter.
After sparkling inter-play between Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott, Giroud executed an overhead kick into the top corner five minutes from time to lift returning pressure from Arsene Wenger.
The weekend’s defeat to Watford, after which the Hornets captain Troy Deeney claimed the Gunners lacked “Cojones”, reopened some Arsenal fans’ frustrations with Wenger and the players – and this performance did little to help.
Wenger reverted to the patchwork approach he has taken to European team selections this season, Mathieu Debuchy playing for the first time in nearly a year, while Mohamed Elneny featured alongside the Frenchman in a back three and Reiss Nelson, scorer of six goals in five Under-23 games this season, was deployed at wing-back.
The result was a stunted performance in attack, until Red Star defender Milan Rodic was dismissed in the 80th minute and the Premier League side’s three most senior players linked up to brilliant effect at Rajko Mitic Stadium.
Progression from Group H now looks a certainty, with the Gunners sat five points clear in first place after three wins from as many matches.
Red Star’s raucous fans never relented despite the tepid nature of the majority of the game, although their side had the better of the first-half chances.
After Milan Borjan denied Walcott with his legs from close-range, Richmond Boakye felt he should have had a penalty when Petr Cech tripped him.
Referee Benoit Bastien instead awarded a contentious corner, from which the Ghanaian hit the crossbar with a free header, further compounding his angst.
The home side kept the pressure on, though, and Cech came to the rescue when he denied a swivelling snapshot from Nemanja Radonjic, who saw a follow-up attempt smothered by Nelson.
Following a typical pre-match offering, Red Star’s fans bucked tradition and unfurled another huge banner for the start of the second half, but it could not lift the stodgy fare on the pitch.
Walcott scuffed his attempt from a cut-back by Nelson, who drew Borjan into a regulation near-post save.
Nenad Krsticic stung the palms of Cech with a header after arriving late in the box, and Radonjic brought the veteran into another stop soon after.
Red Star’s advances were curtailed when Rodic led with his arm in an aerial challenge with Francis Coquelin to earn a second caution, and it sparked Arsenal into their glittering best.
Starting 30 yards from goal, Wilshere burst past two men before feeding Walcott and flicking a brilliant return to the winger, who nodded across the six-yard box, where Giroud turned and picked out the top corner over his shoulder, providing a satisfying aftertaste to another otherwise bland display, a trip to another out-of-sorts side, Everton, on Sunday will require greater gumption.
Key Opta stats:
– Arsenal have won their last four Europa League/UEFA Cup away games, after losing five of the previous six (D1).
– The Gunners have kept their first clean sheet away from home in European competition since beating Olympiacos 3-0 in December 2015.
– Olivier Giroud has been directly involved in eight goals in his last eight starts in Europe for Arsenal (seven goals, one assist).
– Theo Walcott has been directly involved in four goals in his last four European appearances for Arsenal (three goals, one assist).
– Walcott’s assist was his 11th for Olivier Giroud in all competitions; only Mesut Ozil has provided more assists for the Frenchman (15).