ARSENAL WENT out of the European Cup last night, their disappointment at having to field a weakened side compounded by knowing that the goal with which Lens beat them was palpably offside, and then having Ray Parlour sent off in the last minute for a wild kick at Cyril Rool's head. The French striker Tony Vairelles followed after an off-the-ball incident which ended with Lee Dixon on the ground.
Arsenal's principal weakness became clearer as the night wore on: by the end of it, they had not scored in 444 minutes' football. In twice failing to beat the weakest of the six seeded clubs in the competition, the English Double-winners also forfeited the right to a place at the quarter-final table.
They travel to Athens in two weeks' time needing a victory over Panathinaikos to avoid finishing bottom in Group E of the Champions' League while Lens play at home to Dynamo Kiev for top place.
As expected, the absence of Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira was badly felt. Both will probably miss the final match, as will Parlour.
Arsene Wenger's failure to strengthen the squad - however principled, in refusing to bow to the more extravagant demands of agents and their charges - was also a talking point last night as the largest crowd ever to watch an Arsenal home game (73,707) sloped away.
Injuries and suspensions have cost Arsenal dear, but were always likely over the course of a six-game qualifying group. In the absence of experienced understudies, too much responsibility has been put on shoulders of youngsters such as Nicolas Anelka, Christopher Wreh and Stephen Hughes.
Only four players - David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Martin Keown and Nigel Winterburn - have been ever-present in the group matches so far. Tony Adams rejoined them last night, only to withdraw at half-time with back trouble, while Remi Garde and Hughes found the going as hard in midfield as they had against Kiev in the previous Wembley game.
"We had some technical weaknesses, but we fought, we gave everything," said Wenger, sounding, ironically, like so many English managers down the years. "Everything went against us from the first game."
The weaknesses were least apparent for the first quarter of an hour, but from then on Lens were dangerous on the break. Arsenal came out in an unfamiliar navy strip and duly bombarded the visitors' goal, with Anelka's pace a threat, though his finishing was less so. Set up by Hughes's fierce tackle and Wreh's first-time pass, the young striker chose to shoot and put Arsenal's best opportunity of the first half over the bar.
The chance presented to Pascal Nouma after 15 minutes was better. Barely 10 yards out as Vairelles pulled the ball back from the byline, he shot straight at Seaman, who then had to turn away a better effort by the Czech Republic's Vladimir Smicer.
Bould, taking Adams' place and the captain's armband for the second half, got the worst of the deal, for Lens became even more threatening. He could do nothing to disrupt the move with which they should have gone ahead seven minutes after the restart. There was a hole where the cover should have been as Yoan Lachor sent Smicer down the left to pull the ball back across the six-yard box. Nouma was well inside it when he arrived just ahead of Winterburn's challenge, but lifted his shot wide and high.
Nouma paid by being pulled off for the Haitian Wagneau Eloi, who almost made a dramatic impact, twisting inside two tackles before Keown blocked his shot.
Keown threatened to repeat his headed goal against Panathinaikos from Hughes's corner, but as the game swung from end to end with bewildering speed, Lens got their break in the 72nd minute. This time the reason there was so much space behind the home defence was that Michael Debeve seemed to be offside - as well as Eloi - before turning in Smicer's cross-cum- shot.
Arsenal had made a double substitution of their own, the difference being that Luis Boa Morte's first touch was awful as Winterburn's chip sent him clear. An equaliser would have kept them in with a shout going into the final game, but there was to be no salvation, even when a fan in a red shirt sprinted on to the pitch and joined the attack. He looked as dangerous as one or two others, Overmars lobbing feebly into the goalkeeper's arms from close in.
War then broke out in added time with Parlour and Vairelles having no excuse for their excesses with boot and arm respectively.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Adams (Bould, h-t), Winterburn; Parlour, Garde (Vivas, 68), Hughes, Overmars; Anelka, Wreh (Boa Morte, 68). Substitutes not used: Grimandi, Upson, Mendez, Manninger (gk).
Lens (4-4-2): Warmuz; Sikora, Dehu, Magnier, Lachor; Smicer (Moreira, 80), Nyarko, Rool, Debeve; Nouma (Eloi, 59), Vairelles. Substitutes not used: Foe, Meride, Sankhare, Diop, Marichez (gk).
Referee: A Frisk (Sweden).Reuse content