LONDON, November 5-Arsene Wenger launched a scathing attack on his Arsenal flops after they blew a three-goal lead in a 3-3 draw against Anderlecht that left them still waiting to book their place in the Champions League last 16.
Wenger’s side were on course to qualify for the knockout stages of Europe’s elite club competition for the 15th successive season after Mikel Arteta’s penalty and fine strikes from Alexis Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain put them in complete control by the 58th minute.
But the Gunners’ creaky defence was brutally exposed by Anderlecht in a remarkable finale that saw the unheralded Belgians score three times in the last 29 minutes through Anthony vanden Borre’s double and Aleksandar Mitrovic’s stoppage-time header.
Wenger was furious with the way his players squandered their advantage and he said: “We had a poor defensive performance from the first until the last minute. We never looked comfortable and we got punished.
“There was a bit of bad luck because their first goal was clearly offside but we never looked good enough defensively. Across the pitch we were very poor.
“It was a combination of fatigue and switching off. We dropped off and were always open. We didn’t stop the crosses or the long balls.
“It is very disappointing. Maybe subconsciously we underestimated Anderlecht at 3-0.
“In the Champions League you need to be at your best mentally and we weren’t today.”
The woeful meltdown leaves Arsenal with virtually no chance of finishing top of Group D — which was Wenger’s original target — and instead they face a fraught fight just to reach the knockout stages.
They hold a five point lead over third placed Anderlecht, but host group leaders Borussia Dortmund on November 26 knowing a defeat against the Germans would send them to Galatasaray needing a result in a notoriously hostile environment.
“We have very little chance of winning the group,” said Wenger, whose team are five points behind Dortmund.
“The luck we have is with the qualification, we still have a chance. If we had lost tonight we would have been in a very bad situation with qualification.”
– Arteta woe –
To make the evening extra frustrating for Wenger, he is likely to be without captain Arteta for several weeks after the Spanish midfielder was forced off with a hamstring injury.
“Arteta has done a hamstring. I don’t know for how long he will be out,” Wenger added.
While Wenger refused to single out any of his players for public criticism, he will be alarmed at the ease with which Anderlecht troubled full-backs Calum Chambers and Kieran Gibbs, while neither Per Mertesacker or Nacho Monreal looked comfortable at the heart of a defence given little protection by the Arsenal manager’s decision to send out an attacking line-up including only one holding midfielder in Arteta.
“Our aim now is to come back with a better defensive display against Swansea at the weekend,” Wenger added.
Wenger’s angst was perhaps behind his failure to shake hands with Anderlecht boss Besnik Hasi at full-time.
But Hasi refused to dwell on that, preferring to salute his players for a herculean effort that kept alive his team’s slender hopes of reaching the last 16.
“I didn’t get a hand (from Wenger) but I don’t know (why). I was running with my players to celebrate,” Hasi said.
“I don’t think we were lucky. I don’t know if the first goal was offside. I really don’t care.
“I’m very satisfied with the spirit of my young team. In difficult moments they showed their character and quality.
“At 3-0 you can say the game is over, but we made a few changes and at 3-1 we grew in confidence. You could see Arsenal have a few doubts.
“I’m a young coach and I hope I’m going to stay here for a long time, but this is going to stay in my memory for sure.”