Arsenal is stunned by RC Lens’s comeback in the Champions League
Lens came from behind to win a gripping Champions League battle 2-1 in France on Tuesday, courtesy to a magnificent second-half effort by Elye Wahi.
Gabriel Jesus scored in the 14th minute to calm a noisy Stade Bollaert, giving the Premier League side an excellent start.
But Adrien Thomasson quickly equalised for last season’s Ligue 1 runners-up, and the visitors saw Bukayo Saka stagger out before half-time.
Wahi, the 20-year-old striker who became Lens’ club-record signing when he arrived at the start of the season, then scored in the 69th minute as his team hung on for a historic triumph.
“I am very proud of the players,” said Lens manager Franck Haise, who took over the team in the second division in 2020.
“To beat Arsenal certainly makes it one of the most memorable games in my time at Lens.”
The win propels them to the top of Champions League Group B, one point ahead of Mikel Arteta’s team.
Arteta was left to lament Saka’s injury while dismissing allegations that his team’s travel interruption on Monday affected their performance.
“He tried to back-heel a ball in the first half and he felt something, it was something muscular. He was uncomfortable to carry on so we had to take him off,” said the Spaniard.
It was a miserable trip all round for Arsenal, whose flight to France out of London was delayed by almost five hours on Monday due to bad weather.
“There are no excuses,” Arteta insisted.
“First of all congratulations to Lens. I think they are a really good side, really well coached. We knew it would be a really tough match.”
While Arsenal has returned to the Champions League after a six-year absence, Lens is competing in Europe’s top club tournament for the first time in almost 20 years.
That made their first European home game of the season even more meaningful, especially as it was against a team Lens memorably defeated in the Champions League back in 1998.
Arsenal had been the obvious favourites against Lens at the time, and Arteta’s club had arrived in northern France unblemished this season.
They established themselves as the group’s top contenders with a 4-0 hammering of PSV Eindhoven in their first game, while Lens drew heart from a 1-1 draw away to Sevilla.
Saka was considered fit to play after limping off in Arsenal’s 4-0 win over Bournemouth the previous weekend, and his presence was crucial as they took an early lead.
Saka injury blow
They hadn’t fired a shot until Saka pounced on a loose pass from Thomasson back towards his own goal. Saka concluded clinically after feeding Jesus.
It was a painful lesson for Lens on what can happen if you make even the smallest mistake at this level, but they profited on an Arsenal blunder to tie the game on 25 minutes.
David Raya, who was selected in goal over Aaron Ramsdale, was out of his area as he attempted to fly a pass out to the Arsenal right. The pass was intercepted and directed to Wahi, who wonderfully controlled the ball and laid it off for Thomasson to score with a spectacular shot.
Another setback followed for Arsenal as Saka went down just after the half-hour mark and was unable to carry on, with Fabio Vieira replacing him.
Both sides had chances quickly after halftime, but an equal game was decided by two amazing moments near the midway point of the second half.
First, Takehiro Tomiyasu met an Arsenal corner first-time, only to be stopped by a brilliant reflex save from Brice Samba, and three minutes later, Lens seized the lead.
Przemyslaw Frankowski crossed from the right side for Wahi, who stroked a first-time effort into the far corner to make it 2-1 and raise the roof.
The hosts then held off an Arsenal attack in the last minutes, with one incredible block from Jonathan Gradit summarising their effort.