It is only three weeks since Arsenal were last in Champions League action, but the mood around the club has swung dramatically in that time. A 4-1 win over Galatasaray at the Emirates Stadium and a hat-trick for new striker Danny Welbeck had plenty of supporters’ mouths watering at their team’s attacking talent. But ahead of a trip to Anderlecht on Wednesday, they have come crashing back to the earth with their side displaying an all-too familiar soft underbelly.
Defeat away to London rivals Chelsea and a home draw with Hull City has left Arsenal already 11 points off the Premier League summit and with hopes of a title challenge quickly fading from view. In both matches Arsène Wenger’s failure to address key squad needs over the summer coupled with yet another injury crisis were only too apparent. Not only was the team again left without a dominant midfield presence without the ball, but its thin defensive resources have predictably stretched by injuries.
Calum Chambers’ return from suspension at least means Nacho Monreal will no longer be needed as a highly unconvincing makeshift center-back, yet, with Laurent Koscielny still out, teenager Hector Bellerin is again likely to start. There will also be further inexperience in goal in Belgium. With Wojciech Szczesny suspended for his needless sending off late on against Galatasaray and summer signing David Ospina injured, Argentine Emiliano Martinez will make only his third ever start for the club and first outside the League Cup.
There is better news in midfield, with Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey back into contention to start after returning from injury to take their place among the substitutes on Saturday. It remains to be seen whether Theo Walcott will make his comeback into the first-team picture following his outing for Arsenal’s Under-21 side last week.
Still, it is hardly an ideal scenario for a match in which Arsenal can ill-afford a slip up. Despite the emphatic nature of their dismissal of Galatasaray, an equally convincing defeat to begin their Champions League campaign at Borussia Dortmund means Wenger will be especially keen to take maximum points from a double-header with the Belgian champions and stay on course for a place in the last 16.
Of course the need for points is even greater for Anderlecht. After agonizingly conceding an injury-time equalizer to take just a point away from Istanbul, they were beaten convincingly 3-0 at home by Borussia Dortmund. A win at home to Arsenal will surely be needed if Anderlecht are to make it through to the last 16 for the first time since 2000-01. Indeed, in the seven occasions that they have featured in the group stage since then, they have finished bottom of the group each time.
Besnik Hasi’s men don’t exactly come into the key contest in ideal form. They have failed to win any of their last three games in all competitions, drawing successive league fixtures against Genk and Mechelen. Yet despite finishing all-square in five of their 11 fixtures in the Jupiter League this campaign, they remain three points clear at the top as they chase a fourth straight title.
Prediction: The problems are frustratingly familiar for Arsenal, and look set to again hamper them from truly challenging the best teams in England and Europe. But, while, with some key absentees, it might not be an easy night in Belgium, Arsenal have enough quality going forward to see off a fairly limited Anderlecht side.
Anderlecht 1-2 Arsenal
Kickoff time: 2.45 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Fox Sports 2