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Arsenal continued their relentless run in the UEFA Europa League and made it three wins from three in Group H after a late Olivier Giroud winner saw them defeat 10-man Red Star Belgrade 1-0 in Serbia’s capital on Thursday.
Red Star sat in the driving seat for much of the fixture, but Arsenal endeavoured and converted a cruel winner just minutes after Milan Rodic was sent off for the hosts.
The Gunners travelled to Red Star Stadium with a perfect record in the pool phase and extend their lead at the group summit to five points following Thursday’s win, with the return fixture next on their European schedule on November 2.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger handed Wilshere his second successive start in the Europa League as part of a much-altered lineup, which included midfield youngsters Reiss Nelson, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Joe Willock.
The visitors also fielded an experimental three-man defence made up of 22-year-old Rob Holding, defensive midfielder Mohamed Elneny and right-back Mathieu Debuchy, who was making his first senior start since November 2016.
Red Star, who were crowned European Cup winners in 1991, took advantage of the inexperienced Gunners lineup early on and looked a threat on the counter, roared on by an intimidating home audience, per MailOnline’s Layth Yousif:
I’ve watched football on four continents including places like the Azteca but the atmosphere generated just now at the Marakana Stadium by Red Star Belgrade fans is as good as anything I’ve experienced. This is what football should be about https://t.co/GuxEOibGyX
Former Juventus striker Richmond Boakye almost got the breakthrough when his header from a corner thudded into the turf and up off Petr Cech’s crossbar, taking a deflection on the way through.
Only minutes later, the Arsenal stopper was again called into action and pulled off a smart double save to prevent Nemanja Radonjic scoring as Red Star appeared to realise they could have more sway in the fixture.
The hosts’ confidence continued to grow toward the halfway mark, and Mark Mann-Bryans of the Press Association noted Arsenal’s looked to be moving in the opposite direction:
Mark Mann-Bryans @MarkyMBryans
Double-chance for Radonjic but Cech saves before Nelson recovers well to block second effort. #AFC a little rattled in the last few minutes.
Boakye’s tip off the woodwork was the closest either team came to breaking the deadlock before the interval, and the travelling supporters will have been the happier to stay on level terms.
Speedy starlet Nelson almost grabbed his first Arsenal goal early in the second period, while Maitland-Niles also showed flashes of the quality that’s made him one of the club’s more talked-about up-and-coming prospects.
But neither side looked inspired as they each sought to preserve their unbeaten records in the competition, Debuchy was one of Arsenal’s more impressive players despite this being his first senior game in almost a year.
The fixture was in need of some spice and finally received it with 10 minutes remaining when Red Star left-back Rodic received a second yellow card for angling his elbow into Francis Coquelin’s face.
Referee Benoit Bastien seemed certain of his decision, but James Olley of the London Evening Standard questioned if it was the correct call:
James Olley @JamesOlley
Rodic caught Coquelin with a stray elbow. No replays inside the ground – hard to tell live if second yellow was warranted.
Red Star’s fears were realised less than four minutes later when Giroud got on the end of a beautiful interchange with only five minutes left on the clock to give Arsenal the lead they’d held out for.
Wilshere and Theo Walcott exchanged several neat passes before the latter flicked the ball into Giroud’s path, and the Frenchman did the rest of the work with an acrobatic, overhead finish. His finish was exquisite, but broadcaster Philippe Auclair made sure to single out Wilshere for his input:
Philippe Auclair @PhilippeAuclair
Horrible game, but lovely goal by Giroud, great finish – but all down to Wilshere’s skill and invention. Must be given a chance in PL, sooner rather than later.
It was far from pretty, but Arsenal’s third win in three Europa League group games means they’re practically assured of a place in the round of 32 and should wrap up qualification with one more win.
BATE Borisov’s 1-0 win over Cologne means they’re now level with Red Star on four points apiece in Group H, giving the Gunners some breathing space as they focus their attention on other competitions.