Podolski saves insipid Arsenal after Anderlecht horror show
Gunners celebrate Arsene Wenger's 65th birthday with an undeserved victory in Belgium
Anderlecht 1 Arsenal 2. It's every football reporter's worst nightmare: stoppage time is fast approaching and, with the copy written and waiting to be filed, two goals in two minutes turn the match on its head.
That was what happened on Wednesday night in Arsenal's Group D encounter with Anderlecht. For 89 minutes Arsenal were awful. Actually, throw in a few more adjectives: embarrassing, insipid, pathetic. In a season littered with poor performances the Gunners had sunk to new depths on the day Arsene Wenger turned 65.
His boys didn't muster a shot on goal in the first half and for most of the second period it looked as if most Gunners were wondering what to get the gaffer as a gift rather than working out how to break down Anderlecht. Only Alexis Sanchez had his mind on the game, the Chilean striker's industry in sharp contrast to the anonymity of Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere.
Going into injury time Arsenal didn't just deserve to be a goal down, they should have trailed by three or four and would have done had Anderlecht kept their composure in front of goal. As it was the Belgians probably couldn't believe how easy it was, couldn't believe they were on the brink of their first win in the Champions League in 11 matches.
Honduras winger Andy Najar had put Anderlecht ahead on 71 minutes, heading in Dennis Praet's cross with deadly accuracy as five – count them – five Arsenal defenders stood and watched the pair combine. The goal stunned the visitors while self-belief coursed through their hosts. In the minutes that followed Anderlecht should have scored more. Anthony Vanden Borre scuffed a shot against the crossbar, Steven Defour tested goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez with a fierce low drive and Matias Suarez found himself clean through on the Arsenal goal only to lose control at the death.
Wenger's reaction was to throw on his attacking subs, introducing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Joel Campbell and Lukas Podolski for the final 15 minutes. But the equaliser came from an unlikely source. From out wide on the right defender Calum Chambers whipped a magnificent ball across the face of the Anderlecht goal. None of his forwards connected but left back Kieran Gibbs did, steering the ball into the corner with probably the most sweetly-struck shot of his life.
Then, 106 seconds later, as the game ticked into stoppage time, the indomitable Alex Sanchez went in search of an unlikely winner. His tired shot pinballed around the Anderlecht penalty area until it landed at the feet of Podolski six yards out. The German could have panicked, but he remained calm, blasting the ball past Silvio Proto for a goal that underlined his skill as a striker. Strange that Podolski's manager seems to have such little faith in him this season.
The victory, together with Borussia Dortmund's 4-0 thrashing of Galatasaray in Turkey, means that Arsenal and the Germans are both well on course to qualify from Group D. Borussia are top with nine points, three more than Arsenal, and eight more than both Anderlecht and Galatasaray. The fact remains, however, that on the evidence of last night's performance Arsenal could be in for a hiding if and when they reach the knockout stage of the competition. They're just not good enough and haven't been the whole season. Arsenal against Real Madrid doesn't bear thinking about if you're a Gooner. Nor for that matter does Bayern Munich or Barcelona.
Asked afterwards if his birthday had turned out all right in the end, Wenger replied: "It's a nice end to a game. We played against an Anderlecht team that played very well... we controlled the game in the first half without creating any chances. In the second half, we opened ourselves up and were a bit more vulnerable on the counter-attacks.