Arsenal came back from two-goals down to draw 2-2 at Standard Liege and progress to the last 32 of the Europa League as group winners.
The Gunners were all but through before kick-off, with the hosts needing to win 5-0 to prevent the visitors from going through to the knockout rounds – a result that looked even more unlikely after a first half Arsenal edged.
However, Samuel Bastien put the hosts ahead just after the restart when his shot deflected off Sokratis and beyond the wrong-footed Emiliano Martinez.
The goal boosted the hosts but visibly knocked the fragile confidence of the Arsenal players, who became even more nervy when Standard Liege got a second as Selim Amallah’s strike from inside the area flew into the far corner via a slight deflection off Konstantinos Mavropanos.
It set things up for a tense final 20 minutes as the hosts pursued an unlikely result but Alexandre Lacazette settled the Gunners’ nerves when he converted a bullet of a header.
Bukayo Saka then equalised with 10 minutes to go, curling a neat finish into the corner to secure the draw Arsenal needed to top Group F.
Gunners fight back but still work to do
It was perhaps a bit too much to expect Monday’s morale-boosting win at West Ham to mark an immediate upturn in Arsenal’s performances, particularly after a torrid run of nine games without victory.
As was the case in London, the Gunners were below par for over an hour of this encounter and paid the price for poor defending – an area of concern for much of this season – when no players took responsibility to close down Standard Liege’s players, allowing the goalscorers to get off shots that were easily preventable.
But it took going behind to spark Arsenal into life and, after weathering pressure from the hosts, a devastating three-minute spell killed off Standard Liege’s hopes of an upset.
There were glimpses of what Arsenal are capable of but the fact it took falling behind for that show is something Freddie Ljungberg or a new manager will need to address quickly to prompt a more consistent run of form.
Saka shines again
One of the few bright spots in a miserable season for Arsenal has been the emergence of Saka.
The 18-year-old has looked lively and showed plenty of endeavour in his 13 appearances so far for the Gunners but this was arguably his best performance to date.
He finished the game with an assist and goal and could have had more but was denied by two excellent saves by Arnaud Bodart in the first half.
Saka has now assisted six goals for Arsenal in all competitions this season – two more than any other player – underlining his growing importance to the Gunners.
Man of the match – Bukayo Saka (Arsenal)
‘A tremendous talent’ – what they said
Arsenal interim boss Freddie Ljungberg: “He [Saka] was amazing. I think he was a bit upset with me before the game that he had to play wing-back and then full-back. Because he doesn’t like it so much.
“But no, he’s a tremendous talent and you could see it here again. His final ball and the last bit is always effective and there’s always an end product to his work.
“I felt sorry sometimes for our young players because a lot of them have not been on loan. So they haven’t got that exposure to play 90 minutes of men’s football for a longer period of time.
“So I felt in this game that I wanted to get them on the pitch to get that experience, because I know how good they are but they just don’t have experience and some of them, yes, they made some mistakes today. But I think from those mistakes they won’t redo them and that’s invaluable for them and we won the group. So no, Bukayo did tremendous to go back to that [playing wing-back] today.”
Lacazette’s long run continues – the stats
- Arsenal avoided defeat in an away match having been two goals behind for the first time since April 2018, away at CSKA Moscow in the Europa League.
- Standard Liege remain winless in all six matches against Arsenal (D1 L5), going two goals ahead in each of their last two home games against them and winning neither.
- Arsenal have failed to keep a clean sheet in their last 13 games in all competitions, equalling their worst run under Arsene Wenger (also 13 in a row between October and December 2004).
- Alexandre Lacazette has scored 15 goals in his last 20 Europa League starts, a run stretching back to February 2017 when he played for Lyon.
Arsenal return to Premier League action this weekend as they host Manchester City on Sunday, 15 December (16:30 GMT).