Lens 2 Arsenal 1
Arsenal had been delayed by one storm in the build-up to this match and then, on a night that may have wider consequences, wilted under another. They were deservedly beaten by a relentless, passionately backed Lens side in a reminder that progress to the round of 16 cannot be taken remotely for granted; there was another cost to count, too, Bukayo Saka leaving the field in the 34th minute with the latest and potentially most serious of a seemingly endless string of knocks.
Mikel Arteta will regret their loss of control after Gabriel Jesus had put them ahead, Adrien Thomassen and the excellent Elye Wahi both finishing superbly to turn matters on their head. He may also have pause for thought about the prodigious workload he has demanded of Saka given a vital Premier League meeting with Manchester City lies in wait next.
It felt, at the outset, as if Arsenal had been pitched into a furnace. Lens represent not only their small, industrial home city but much of the surrounding coal-mining region. This was the first game held here at Europe’s highest level for 21 years and how the home support, clad almost without exception in vivid red and yellow, responded.
Fire and sound pulsated from four steep, severe stands as the teams emerged and the atmosphere was heightened further by a unique layout that meant a bouncing, flare-wielding, terrace of Lens ultras was positioned along an entire side of the pitch. “Together we will shine our coat of arms in the Champions League,” read a banner at kick-off.
Arsenal had not been dealt the smoothest of preparations, waiting at Luton airport for five hours before their flight was cleared to make the trip on Monday night. The journey was short enough to limit any excuses; Arteta sought to further minimise any post-match contortions by going strong, introducing Takehiro Tomiysasu and Leandro Trossard but otherwise staying with the starting XI that eased through at Bournemouth.
Given the local energy levels a fast start was inevitable from last season’s Ligue 1 runners-up, who had won their previous two games after a stuttering first month. From the second of two early corners their centre back Kevin Danso, once of the MK Dons academy, was allowed to control before dragging a presentable chance just wide.
Lens were compacting the space and steaming into tackles, Facundo Medina somehow managing to emerge from consecutive challenges with Martin Ødegaard, Kai Havertz and Jesus while retaining possession. But they needed to match enthusiasm with accuracy and Arsenal made them pay for their first significant moment of sloppiness. Thomasson had clearly underestimated Saka’s razor-sharp levels of anticipation when attempting a backwards pass midway inside his own half and was immediately left regretful.
Saka laid off to Jesus, who was still 30 yards from goal but carried the ball towards the penalty area and made space for an unerring low finish across Brice Samba.
Shortly afterwards Havertz tried to make it two, Samba repelling an angled volley. Thomasson went looking for redemption and hooked wide at the near post, but in the 25th minute he banished those earlier ghosts with a glorious finish. David Raya is feted for his ability to build possession but here his pass towards Tomiyasu was seized upon by the left wing-back Deiver Machado, who immediately looked for Elye Wahi up front. Wahi’s control and deft, gymnastic flick towards Thomasson were of the highest order; the shot, curled around Raya on the half-volley from 16 yards, was thrilling.
The news swiftly worsened for Arsenal. Saka, whose levels of robustness routinely defy belief, had been passed fit despite departing early against Bournemouth but pulled up with what appeared a muscular problem and was eventually withdrawn. Fábio Vieira replaced him and by half-time the game’s flow had broken up considerably, not that the Lens faithful were especially concerned.
Arsenal had struggled to create in the half’s latter stages, beyond a late off-target effort from Jesus. It was the Brazilian who fashioned an opening four minutes into the second period, some prodigious harrying laying the groundwork for a chance that Trossard hit against Samba’s legs.
The hope for Arteta must have been that Lens, still full of running, would burn themselves out. Yet they maintained their intensity as the hour approached and still held a genuine threat, Thomasson diverting a cross from the left off target and William Saliba defending coolly to stop Wahi getting away.
Lens looked perfectly at ease with the night’s physical demands and began to smell an even better outcome. They fully deserved the lead when it came and Arsenal had been warned before Wahi’s goal when Salis Abdul Samed shot wide after an incisive right-sided move.
After Tomiyasu fluffed a presentable chance at the other end they were exposed down the same flank, Przemyslaw Frankowski surging beyond Oleksandr Zinchenko to set up an immaculate swept finish and spark pandemonium.
Samba beat away a shot from the substitute Emile Smith Rowe and then breathed out when another replacement, Reiss Nelson, saw an effort blocked near the line. Lens, magnificent to a man, held on. – Guardian