By Rob Kelly at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal were held to a 3-3 draw by Anderlecht on Tuesday night after the Belgians mounted a shock comeback.
The Gunners had gone three goals in front after Mikel Arteta, Alexis Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored, but saw that lead evaporate in 29 second-half minutes.
Now they require a point from their remaining two Champions League Group D fixtures to secure their progress to the last-16.
After a lively opening in which the visitors twice went close, the Gunners took control of the game with two goals in the space of five first-half minutes.
The first - a penalty from Arteta - was the club’s 500th competitive goal at Emirates Stadium, but it is the second that will arguably live longer in the memory.
No prizes for guessing who scored it - that man Alexis once again - but it was the quality of the strike that really stood out. The Chilean has scored a plethora of fine goals since his summer move from Barcelona, and this was another beauty.
It came from a free-kick on the edge of the area, with his first effort hitting the wall before he absolutely buried the rebound into the bottom corner on the volley.
Arsene Wenger’s side continued to dominate after the interval, with the dangerous Oxlade-Chamberlain and Danny Welbeck both going close in quick succession.
Soon they did have their third, as Oxlade-Chamberlain took advantage of a defensive error to race through and slot in his second of the season. It looked to be plain sailing for the hosts, but Anderlecht mounted a surprise comeback.
Anthony Vanden Borre pulled one back with a goal that had more than a hint of offside about it, before the right back slotted in a penalty after Nacho Monreal was adjudged to have brought down Aleksandar Mitrovic in the area.
It added late drama to a game that had looked all sewn up after an hour, and right at the death Mitrovic’s diving header completed the comeback.
SETTING THE SCENE
The Gunners knew that a win against the Belgians, coupled with Galatasaray failing to do the same at Dortmund, would secure their progress to the last-16 with two matches remaining.
Wenger opted against mass rotation, making one change to the side that beat Burnley on Saturday with Aaron Ramsey replacing Mathieu Flamini. That meant a third straight game through the middle for the red-hot Alexis, who came into the game with 10 goals in his last 12 matches.
Anderlecht, meanwhile, had less-than-ideal preparation for the game as the London traffic meant they did not arrive at a cold and wet Emirates Stadium until some 45 minutes before kick off.
The Belgian champions also had injury problems to contend with, as influential midfielder Steven Defour and forward Matias Suarez both missed out through injury. However, the impressive Dennis Praet - who had a trial at Arsenal as a teenager - was included in their starting XI.
Anderlecht may have turned up late, but they made the brighter start and were close to taking an early lead when Praet broke forward and saw a deflected shot squirm narrowly past Wojciech Szczesny’s near post.
Arsenal responded immediately though, with Ramsey seeing a close-range shot blocked superbly by Olivier Deschacht after good work by the lively Oxlade-Chamberlain and Calum Chambers.
It was an end-to-end opening to the game and soon it was Anderlecht’s turn to attack again, with Szczesny having to be alert to get down to stop Sacha Kljestan’s shot after the midfielder had hurdled his way into the box.
Alexis had been relatively quiet up until this point but soon burst into life as he struck the post with a fierce drive from inside the area.
It had been something of a see-saw affair, but soon the balance firmly fell in Arsenal’s favour when they were awarded a penalty after Welbeck was hauled down in the box by Mbemba’s clumsy tackle.
Arteta stepped up to take the resulting spot kick and chipped it confidently down the middle.
Five minutes later they had doubled their lead in stunning fashion - and it was the man of the moment, Alexis, with yet another for his growing collection.
It came after the Chile international had made a searing run through the heart of the Anderlecht defence, with Vanden Borre dragging him down on the edge of the area. Alexis stood up to take the free-kick and while his first effort struck the wall, his follow-up volley arrowed into the bottom corner.
When you’re hot, you’re hot - and right now he is simply unplayable.
Anderlecht remained a threat on the counter, and the lively Praet could well have reduced the arrears when he found space on the edge of the box. But with the goal in front of him, he chose to cut back on to his left foot and allowed Chambers to get an all-important touch to deflect it wide.
Arsenal came flying out of the blocks in the second half and could have added a third within three minutes when the ball broke nicely to Kieran Gibbs in the area.
The left back had scored that all-important equaliser in Brussels two weeks ago, but this time chose to pass rather than shoot, finding Oxlade-Chamberlain - whose first-time strike was parried away by Proto.
Welbeck had put in a typically hard-working shift and deserved a goal for his efforts, coming close in the 55th minute when he rose to meet Oxlade-Chamberlain’s dinked cross from the left but directing his header just wide.
It mattered not as, moments later, Oxlade-Chamberlain capped off an exciting performance by drilling in the Gunners’ third.
Much of it was owed to Alexis’ terrier-like persistence in forcing the mistake from Deschacht outside his own area, with Oxlade-Chamberlain nicking the ball and racing into the box before slotting past Proto.
Vanden Borre pulled one back for the Belgians within minutes when he poked home from close range - although replays seemed to indicate that the right back was offside.
Welbeck then went close again with a firm header from Santi Cazorla’s corner, before there was further drama when Monreal tangled with Mitrovic in the area and a penalty was awarded.
Vanden Borre calmly rolled home the spot kick and what had once seemed a comfortable evening was now set for a tense climax.
Right at the end Mitrovic managed to get himself in front Mertesacker at the near post and equalise for the Belgians. It was a disappointing end to a night that had started so promisingly for the Gunners.
Referee: Clément Turpin
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