Olivier Giroud knows all about pressure. Montpellier, his former club, needed to win at Auxerre on the final day of last season to secure their maiden French title.
Amid riotous scenes, as the home fans revolted, Montpellier kept their cool and recovered from 1-0 down to triumph 2-1. The crown was theirs.
Almost a year on the pressure is on again. Giroud is now with Arsenal, a £9.6m summer capture, and, if winning the Premier League – or any trophy – is but a distant dream, there is the not insignificant issue of claiming a place in the Champions League via a top-four finish. Manchester United and Manchester City may have flown the coop but Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal are involved in a three-way fight for the remaining two places among the European elite next season. Perhaps even Everton, with a late surge, can join the scrap. Giroud is relishing it.
"Yes, the championship is until 19 May," the France striker said. "There's eight games to play and a lot of points to play for. I trust in our qualities. I really think we can make fourth place and maybe even third if we continue to play like we are.
"We want to dictate the games. We are confident. We are used to finishing the championship well. And again this season we will do the same. Spurs have to play against Manchester City and Chelsea so it's hard games for them. But every game is difficult; we can see that Chelsea lost in Southampton. We have to keep focus, concentrated and strong."
Focused, concentrated, strong: these are qualities that Arsenal have exhibited in abundance since their morale-sapping 2-1 defeat at Tottenham four weeks ago. Three wins on the spin have restored a semblance of sanity as the goons among the Gooners heaped hell and damnation on an apparently inert Emirates boardroom.
The 2-0 victory at Bayern Munich may have been futile. Arsenal drew 3-3 on aggregate, an admirable effort, but still went out of their Champions League last-16 tie on the away goals rule. It was, though, a start, a reawakening.
The subsequent successes, 2-0 over Swansea City and the thumping of a feeble Reading on Saturday, have enhanced the belief further. Arsenal lie two points behind Chelsea and four points adrift, with a game in hand, of Tottenham. It is perhaps their London rivals who are feeling the heat, a death grip that particularly affects Spurs at this stage of the season.
Are their neighbours quaking? "Yes, I think so," Giroud said, with a twinkle in the eye that earned him the affectionate French nickname of "Charm Striker" when he played for Montpellier. "We're scoring lots of goals. We're playing well."
Lots of goals is Giroud's trade – 21 in Ligue 1 last season and now 16 in all competitions for Arsenal. The latest, the third against Reading, demonstrated his willingness to be involved. Reading won a rare corner, nothing came of it and Gervinho sped away on his own. The Ivorian glanced across for support and no one, apart from the Frenchman, had bothered to break with him. Gervinho had one passing option, made it successfully and Giroud supplied the driven finish past Stuart Taylor, a Reading and former Arsenal goalkeeper. "I had some chances to score but also tried to play for my team-mates," Giroud said. "I succeed to score so I am happy."
A revitalised Gervinho was happy, too. His second goal in successive matches had given Arsenal an early lead and Santi Cazorla curled in a delightful effort to stretch the advantage. Giroud ran the length of the pitch to make it 3-0 and, although Hal Robson-Kanu reduced the gap with a stooping header, Mikel Arteta tucked in a penalty after Adrian Mariappa had clumsily felled Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The spot kick was the 24th goal in the three meetings between the teams this season, 16-8 in Arsenal's favour.
"We believe that since November we have created momentum," Arsène Wenger, their manager, said. "We just focus on winning the next game. I am sure everyone will give their maximum."
A near maximum return from their remaining seven games might be all that can save Reading, who slipped into the basement with barely a murmur. The arrival of Nigel Adkins, their new manager, on Tuesday appeared to have made little discernible difference and time is not on his side, emphasising the puzzling decision to dismiss Brian McDermott, his predecessor, so late in the campaign. Still, Danny Guthrie, the Reading midfielder and not the greatest McDermott admirer, sees a sliver of hope under Adkins. "He's been brilliant already," Guthrie said. "He's made a big impact on the players. Some of the lads who were guaranteed a place [under McDermott] have to be a bit sharper. But we have a new manager now and everything is looking a little better."
Man of the match Gervinho (Arsenal)
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