When they were crowned Ligue 1 champions in 1998, the following season saw Lens open their first-ever Champions League campaign with a 1-1 draw against Arsenal, a late Tony Vairelles equaliser earning the Sang et Or a point. Twenty-five years on, against the same opponent, they have emphatically announced their return on the continental stage by bettering that result.
Spurred on by the ever-deafening Bollaert, Lens started on the front foot and earned two corners within the first ten minutes. Arsenal’s quality up front, though, meant they only need one chance to open the scoring – that chance would come through an underhit pass by Adrien Thomasson straight to Bukayo Saka, who threaded it through to Gabriel Jesus to duly finish past Brice Samba.
The response, though, was characteristically spirited from the hosts. While Arsenal initially looked able to assert some dominance in midfield, Lens’ relentless pressing proved an efficient disruptor. Just before the half-hour mark, Machado was able to intercept a pass wide from Raya and find Wahi on the edge of the box. The summer signing laid it off for Thomasson, who with a curled, first-touch finish managed to atone for his earlier error.
With Saka going off injured at the half-hour mark, Arsenal’s attacking potential was somewhat blunted, with Lens managing more shots despite having less than a third of possession. Franck Haise’s men would continue to construct incisive moves down the wing throughout the second half – the breakthrough eventually coming from a Frankowski-Sotoca combination on right, before the Pole found Wahi in the middle for a close-range finish.
Colossal defensive performances from the ever-reliable Kevin Danso as well as Facundo Medina would ensure that Mikel Arteta’s men would scarcely challenge Brice Samba, but for a late flurry of chances – Jonathan Gradit notably intervening with a last-ditch block.
After a rough start to the campaign, the Sang et Or have now rediscovered the spark that saw them push PSG all the way last season – and they’ve done so at exactly the right time, clinching a historic win to go top of Group B. It’s the kind of evening that few clubs in France can boast of in their history – and by the looks of it, there’s still more to come from Franck Haise’s men.
Lens player ratings:
Brice Samba, 7
Jonathan Gradit, 7
Kevin Danso, 8 – Get French Football News’ player of the season last year once again turns in an imposing performance – mostly kept Gabriel Jesus at bay and kick-started
Facundo Medina, 8
Przemysław Frankowski, 7
Nampalys Mendy, 7
Salis Abdul Samed, 6
Deiver Machado, 8
Florian Sotoca, 7
Adrien Thomasson, 7
Elye Wahi, 9 – The France U21 striker with the first big-game performance of his career – constantly slipped away from the Arsenal defence and was always available to release pressure from his teammates. Assisted Thomasson’s goal with a sensational layoff before scoring the winner in the second half. Replaced by Wesley Saïd for the final 15 minutes.