Alexandre Lacazette scored what could prove to be a crucial away goal as Arsenal beat Olympiakos in the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie.
The match was heading towards a drab goalless draw when the Frenchman tucked in Bukayo Saka’s low cross from close range in the 81st minute.
Lacazette, who had struggled before the goal, missed with a shot from eight yards in the first half.
Youssef El-Arabi forced a good save from Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno.
The return leg is at Emirates Stadium on Thursday, 27 February.
Perseverance pays off for Lacazette
Arsenal’s best period of the match came after Lacazette’s goal, the previous 81 minutes were largely forgettable.
It was a contest that meandered at times on a wet night in Athens. Both sides did enjoy bright spells, but they were brief and very occasional.
The Gunners without Mesut Ozil, missing because of personal reasons, lacked someone to conduct the attack, which at times played like they had met each other for the first time.
Perhaps if manager Mikel Arteta slotted Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – the club’s top scorer with 17 goals this season – in the middle of the attack instead of the right it might have aided Arsenal’s cause.
Instead Lacazette took up that role. The Frenchman ended a nine-game goal drought against Newcastle last weekend – but that strike came late in stoppage time after the Magpies had given up the ghost shortly after the break.
Despite scoring the winner, the 28-year-old still lacks sharpness and should have scored in the first half when he hooked a shot wide from eight yards after a brilliant cut-back from Gabriel Martinelli.
And in the second half, the France striker went down too easily in the area under the challenge of Ousseynou Ba, when ‘peak Lacazette’ would have taken the ball on and unleashed a shot.
But Arteta persevered with him and he persevered. With nine minutes remaining Lacazette made it two goals in two games when he tapped in a carefully weighted ball from Saka, who was one of the brighter sparks in the Arsenal attack.
Moments after the restart Lacazette, with his tail up, forced a good save from Jose Sa with a firm strike before Sokratis planted a powerful header against the bar.
If Olympiakos repeat their display at Emirates Stadium then this one-goal aggregate lead should be enough.
Martinelli experiences frustrating night
In a recent Twitter Q&A, Arsenal striking great Robin Van Persie joined Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp, Brazilian great Ronaldinho and those within the club among others in hailing the talent of Martinelli.
The Brazilian 18-year-old is fleet of foot and eager to get on the ball, but against Olympiakos he seemed a little lost. He only managed 12 touches in the first half – the fewest of his side – although one of those was that excellent pullback for Lacazette.
He was guilty of misplaced passes and seemed frustrated at times that his team-mates were not reading the game like he was. Arteta replaced him with Dani Ceballos in the 58th minute.
Man of the match – Bernd Leno (Arsenal)
Assist-king Saka – stats
- Olympiakos have won just one of their last 12 knockout stage matches in major European competition (D4 L7).
- Arsenal remain the only Premier League side yet to lose a game in all competitions in 2020 (P9 W5 D4).
- Arsenal are unbeaten in six away European games in all competitions (including qualifiers) for the first time since a run of eight ending in September 2006.
- Lacazette has found the net in his last two games in all competitions for Arsenal, after failing to score in each of the nine before that.
- Saka has registered five assists in the Europa League this season (excluding qualifiers), more than any other player.
- Saka has nine assists to his name in all competitions, more than any other Arsenal player.