By Rob Kelly
“We had a bit of a miraculous win because we needed to go until the last minute, but that also showed our quality. We have been warned and we have learned a lot from that game.” - Arsene Wenger
THE SET UP
With 89 minutes on the clock at Anderlecht two weeks ago, Arsenal were staring down the barrel of a defeat that would not only further dent morale but also leave their Champions League prospects in serious peril. But, in one of those late twists that football delights in providing, suddenly the landscape changed completely in a little over 60 seconds.
Firstly Kieran Gibbs chose an opportune time to volley in his first goal in more than 14 months, before Lukas Podolski slammed home a scarcely believable last-gasp winner. It was some turnaround - and the effects of it are still being felt today. For not only has it left the Gunners on the verge of qualification for the knockout stages, the result has also been the catalyst for a tangible upturn in form.
Since then Arsene Wenger’s side have seen off Sunderland at the Stadium of Light and beaten bottom club Burnley, adding some much-needed momentum to a stuttering season. Now their prospects seem far rosier, and with Alexis Sanchez in red-hot form and the defence claiming its second clean sheet on the bounce, optimism abounds.
Should Arsenal do the double over Anderlecht, they could book their passage to the last 16 with two matches remaining. It is dependent on the result of Galatasaray’s trip to Borussia Dortmund, but to progress so comfortably seemed an unlikely prospect following the Gunners’ defeat in Germany on matchday one.
While Wenger admits it is an appealing prospect, he is adamant that his side must focus on the task immediately in hand.
“Sometimes just to do your job in our game is important. Let’s see if we can do that here,” he said. “It is far from done because Anderlecht are a team who are certainly more dangerous away from home because they are good on the break.
“I think if we win we have a good chance to qualify. We want to take this opportunity - we are on a good run and we want to take advantage of that.”
With Theo Walcott’s return to first-team action providing a timely boost, Wenger must decide whether to stick with a winning side or rotate his squad on Tuesday night.
The manager indicated in his pre-match press conference that the England international would be slowly integrated back into the side over the coming weeks, so starting this game seems unlikely, but with a packed schedule on the horizon Wenger may look to freshen things up.
Jack Wilshere has been ruled out through illness, but with Aaron Ramsey back, and the likes of Podolski and Tomas Rosicky champing at the bit, the options are there should the manager need them.
"If we can win it at the start, we will do it at the start, if we have to wait until the last minute then we will do it again"
“I don’t know [if I will rotate],” he said. “What is for sure is that offensively I have much more choice than previous years, because top players like Campbell are not even in the squad. I have more opportunities to be good going forward. At the back, at the moment, we cannot change too much.”
What Wenger will be wary of is stalling at a key time. There were positive signs against Burnley - despite a fraught period in the second half before Alexis’ opener - that his side are getting back to their best, and a fourth consecutive victory would only strengthen that belief. Now the manager must ponder whether to stick or twist.
“We will try to win the game when it is possible,” he said. “If we can win it at the start, we will do it at the start, if we have to wait until the last minute then we will do it again. But it is difficult to predict.
“Let’s first do the job and then we will see. I believe every win makes you stronger and every defeat makes you weaker, so no matter what happens against Anderlecht we will play until the end.”
Anderlecht’s form since that late turnaround in Brussels also suggests the result has had a far-reaching impact. Having been unbeaten domestically since the start of the season, they lost their next Belgian Pro League game at home to Standard Liege and recovered to win away at Kortrikj before requiring an injury-time equaliser to rescue a draw against Lokeren.
Besnik Hari’s side remain top of the table though, and have proven pedigree on the road in Europe. Last November they claimed an impressive 1-1 draw at Paris Saint-Germain, while this season they were only denied a win at Galatasaray after conceding in added time.
Had things gone differently, their goalscorer in Turkey, Dennis Praet, could have been running out on Tuesday night in Arsenal colours.
The midfielder came over to England as a teenager to have a trial with the club but did not earn a deal. Since then his game has gone from strength to strength, and he performed so well against the Gunners two weeks ago that he caught a certain Frenchman’s eye.
“When he was 15 or 16 years old, he came with Kyle Ebecilio who, in between, went back to Holland,” Wenger said. “At the time, he was judged - I didn’t know he was here, I didn’t know him at the time - a bit weak physically. Since then he has developed well. I was honestly impressed by his performance when we played in the first game.”
Praet will be one of a number of attackers that the Gunners will have to keep a close eye on if they are to secure the win they need. As the midfielder showed in Brussels, Anderlecht have the attacking arsenal to cause their hosts significant problems if they are not at their very best.
Arsenal will certainly not lack for motivation on Tuesday night. A victory could either secure their progress or take them to the point of qualification for the last 16. That would leave a potential shoot-out with Dortmund on matchday five that could help seal that all-important top spot in Group D.
“I don’t know exactly how it is in the groups, but it is always better that you finish first because in some way you feel guilty if you don’t finish first,” Wenger said. “For example, we have played Bayern twice, and we have played Barcelona [after finishing second].”
But the manager is not about to get ahead of himself. After an almighty scare in Brussels, he will want to see a more composed, more mature performance this time around against a side that have the potential to cause big problems.
“We respect them because they gave us a tough game,” he said. “We had a bit of a miraculous win because we needed to go until the last minute, but that also showed our quality in that game. We have been warned, we have learned a lot from that game and we want to win this match at the Emirates.”
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.