With the clock ticking toward 89 minutes in Brussels two weeks ago, Anderlecht led a listless Arsenal side 1-0 -- a result that would leave the English visitors’ hopes of progressing to the Champions League knockout phase in unexpected peril. By the time the final whistle sounded five minutes later, Arsenal were jubilant, having won 2-1 thanks to late goals from Kieran Gibbs and Lukas Podolski. It means that, rather than playing for their Champions League lives, Arsène Wenger’s men will -- if Galatasaray fail to win away at Group D leaders Borussia Dortmund -- secure their place in the last 16 for the 15th consecutive season if they beat the Belgian champions at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday. Wenger, though, is taking nothing for granted.
“We respect them because they gave us a tough game,” he said at his pre-match press conference on Monday. “We had a little bit of a miraculous win because we needed to go until the last minute, but that was also 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.”
Given the current strength of Arsenal’s position, one eye is already turning to, not simply progressing, but doing so as group winners. Their run of qualification for the knockout phase deserves much credit, but it has also brought much frustration. For the past four years Arsenal have moved through as runners-up and been punished by last-16 draws against Barcelona, Milan and for the past two seasons Bayern Munich. On each occasion, Arsenal’s European quest was ended before the quarterfinal stage.
“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. “People think if you are punished you deserve it, because you finish second.”
To think about being a major challenger in the Champions League this season, or indeed in the Premier League where they sit nine points behind leaders Chelsea, Arsenal still have much work to do. Since they escaped with a victory in Belgium, Arsenal have dismissed both Sunderland and Burnley in the Premier League -- two victories that owed much to Alexis Sánchez. The summer arrival from Barcelona has been the key man in recent weeks, providing the intensity and incisiveness often lacking in those around him. His four goals in those two wins have taken his tally to nine in his first 13 appearances.
Arsenal will hope the Chilean is soon supported in the goals and assists column by Theo Walcott. The lightning-quick forward made his first appearance after a nine-month injury absence off the substitute’s bench against Burnley. Wenger would not reveal whether he was in line to start on Tuesday. Jack Wilshere is sidelined by illness, while Laurent Koscielny, Mesut Özil, Mathieu Debuchy, Olivier Giroud and David Ospina remain out injured. Wojciech Szczesny returns from suspension that ruled him out two weeks ago.
After bitter disappointment at home, Anderlecht now realistically need a win at the Emirates to have any chance of progressing out of the first group stage for the first time in 14 years. Coach Besnik Hasni, though, admits that the result of the first match against Arsenal still sting.
“It's one thing conceding a goal and getting one point; it's another thing to lose the game entirely -- nobody saw that coming and it had a hugely negative impact on my young squad,” he said. “If Arsenal are better than us then I have no problem congratulating them; but in the first game I don't think we got what we deserved.”
Prediction: Arsenal got out of jail in Brussels after a poor display that could and should have seen them more than just a goal down in the second half. Wenger’s men remain some way short of a team that will put fear into Europe’s elite, with a makeshift defense to go along with an attack that still isn’t hitting all the right notes. But Arsenal should be buoyed by three wins on the bounce and, with the brilliant and tireless Sánchez in their ranks, they should have too much for an inexperienced Anderlecht lineup.
Arsenal 2-0 Anderlecht
Kickoff time: 2:45 PM ET
TV channel: Fox Sports 2