Olympiakos 0 Arsenal 3
This was the night when Arsenal finally did, on a do-or-die Champions League occasion, when all of the hard-luck stories that have clung to their recent exits from the competition were overtaken by one that told of skill, savvy and cold-blooded professionalism.
They had needed a two-goal win to pip Olympiakos on the head-to-head tie-break, to dig themselves out of the hole of their own making, and the fear was that they might have left themselves with too much to do. But after an early wobble they imposed themselves at this imposing venue to power into the last-16 and prolong Arsène Wenger’s proud association with the knock-out phase of Europe’s elite competition. It is now 16 years in succession that he and Arsenal have reached the second round.
Olivier Giroud was the hero and what a night he chose to score his first hat-trick for the club. The first was aided and abetted by the Olympiakos goalkeeper, Roberto; the second by the outstanding Joel Campbell and the third came from the penalty spot. He will cherish this match-ball.
But there were other heroes, including the goalkeeper Petr Cech who, not for the first time, produced a marvellous save when it mattered the most.
He dived high to his right to repel Kostas Fortounis’ 58th-minute effort from outside the area at 2-0. The Europa League had loomed. Instead, for Wenger, the players and the 1,200 travelling fans, there was a night to remember.
Arsenal had not been favoured at the outset or, at least, the feeling had been that it would, on balance, have been a surprise if they got through. They had travelled without seven injured players, they were stretched, and the requirement was for one of the collective performances of their lives.
Olympiakos have not been given too much credit in England, despite their victory at the Emirates, but when they entered this gladiatorial arena they had won all bar two of their matches in all competitions this season – the home and away Champions League ties against Bayern Munich, which they lost.
It was clear from the outset that this would be a tense occasion and, also, that Arsenal would have to work extremely hard to take the sting out of the crowd. Theirs was quite a sting. From before the warm-up, the Olympiakos die-hards beat their drums and shouted their anthems. The atmosphere here is one of the best in European football.
Everybody connected to Arsenal had dreamed of scoring the opening goal, ideally as soon as possible. Only then could their hopes surge. They were second-best for the first 20 minutes but, crucially, they did not concede. And, after Mathieu Flamini had rattled the bar with a shot that took a slight deflection off Manuel da Costa, following Campbell's smart cut-back, they got what they wanted.
Aaron Ramsey escaped on the left and when he crossed, Giroud had bought a few yards from his markers by dropping away from goal. He flexed his neck muscles and generated tremendous power in the header but Roberto still had to do better. He was slow to get down at his near post and the ball squirmed beneath him and in.
Roberto screamed up at the heavens, his anguish was like that of David Ospina, the back-up Arsenal keeper, after his nightmarish error from the first game between the two. For a couple of seconds the crowd fell silent and it really was the strangest sensation. Giroud wheeled away in delight. The comeback was on.
Olympiakos had settled the quicker and they pressed on to the attack. Their determination to make something happen early-on crossed the line when the playmaker, Fortounis, threw himself into a lamentable dive under a non-challenge from Theo Walcott inside the area. He was booked.
But Olympiakos made progress up the flanks, in behind the Arsenal full-backs, and there were a few nervous moments for the visitors, although they ceded nothing of truly clear-cut note.
Wenger had talked about creating a “fear factor” within Olympiakos ranks and Giroud’s goal did precisely that. The swagger seemed to leave their steps for the remainder of the first-half and it was Arsenal that grew. Olympiakos were painfully aware of what they stood to lose. This was drama of the highest order.
Olympiakos looked vulnerable but could Arsenal find the ruthlessness that had eluded them on recent make-or-break Champions League nights? They gave their answer during the second-half.
It was Campbell’s moment of magic that helped to put them in charge of their qualification for pretty much the first time during the group stage. He was a very popular player during his season-long loan at Olympiakos in 2013-14, but he floored them here. His control from Mesut Özil’s high ball was excellent but he had only just begun. One touch took him inside Dimitris Siovas and he then tricked away from Arthur Masuaku before weighting the perfect pass for Giroud, who could not miss from close in. He did not.
Olympiakos tried to rally. Da Costa headed straight at Cech and Fortounis fully extended the goalkeeper with a curler from outside the area. Cech’s agility was eye-catching. Brown Ideye also slipped when gloriously placed.
But Arsenal could reflect upon a Walcott effort that deflected wide before they made the game safe with the penalty. Olympiakos argued that Omar Elabdellaoui’s back was turned when Nacho Monreal shot and he knew nothing about the hand-ball. Arsenal did not care. Giroud’s showed composure from the spot and Arsenal could begin to look forward to Monday’s draw for the knock-out rounds.