Arsene Wenger heaped praise on Lukas Podolski after the German international came off the bench to seal a 2-1 win in a remarkable finish to Arsenal’s Champions League clash with Anderlecht on Wednesday.
On the day he turned 65, Wenger was forced to gamble after his team went 1-0 down at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium in Brussels through an Andy Najar goal in the 71st minute.
The Frenchman looked to the bench and one of his changes was to replace midfielder Jack Wilshere with forward Podolski six minutes from time.
Left-back Kieran Gibbs volleyed in an equaliser in the 89th minute to spare the blushes, but Podolski came up with the winner in injury time to give Arsenal an unlikely win at the end of a disappointing display.
“I know by experience that in the last five minutes in the Champions League the nerves play a part but we had to get there without conceding a second goal,” Wenger said.
“It is a little bit of a gambling situation that happens in these games, and it worked tonight.
“Podolski we know can always score you a goal. He is frustrated and I can understand that but he is important,” said Wenger of his World Cup-winning forward, who has struggled with fitness problems of late.
“He needs to get back to a good physical level and now he is nearly there,” added Wenger, who dismissed talk that the 29-year-old almost left the Emirates Stadium in the summer.
“He was never close to leaving the club in the summer. He has 115 caps for Germany — that is not a coincidence. He is a guy you want to have in the box because his shot accuracy is great. I know when he comes on that he can score a goal.”
For long spells it was a birthday to forget for Wenger, but the late turnaround allowed him to face the media with a spring in his step, in contrast to his frosty mood after Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Hull City in the Premier League.
The Gunners had won just two of nine games in all competitions before travelling to Brussels, and they were outfought by Besnik Hasi’s supposedly inferior opponents.
Indeed, at 1-0 down they needed two vital saves from Emiliano Martinez to keep them in the game, and Wenger said he never doubted the 22-year-old Argentinian, who was making his Champions League debut in the absence of the suspended Wojciech Szczesny and the injured David Ospina.
“I had no worry for our goalkeeper because he has the presence and the quality. He resists well to stress,” said Wenger, who nevertheless accepted that the overall performance from his side was not good enough.
– Unexpected -“It was disappointing we didn’t create more chances tonight than we did but that is because Anderlecht defended very well.
“But the turning point was not to concede a second goal – they had a big chance that they didn’t take and our experience made the difference.
“It is a bit unexpected to take the three (points) considering the quality of match that Anderlecht played tonight.”
Wenger’s side have six points from three games, three points fewer than Group D leaders Borussia Dortmund — who won 4-0 at Galatasaray — but five ahead of Anderlecht and the Turks, and a win at home to the Belgians in a fortnight could take them through to the last 16.
Meanwhile, Anderlecht, who have finished bottom of their group in each of their last seven appearances at this stage of the competition, felt they deserved better on the night for their committed performance.
“My team was almost perfect, except for the last three minutes. We should have won the game, definitely,” said home coach Hasi after his side slipped to a sixth consecutive home defeat at this stage of the competition.
“We couldn’t get the second goal and paid for it dearly. It was a lack of concentration. We have a young team,” added Hasi, who also complained that Arsenal’s winning goal should have been ruled out for a supposed foul on Steven Defour.