Football Nostalgia

Lens v Arsenal 1998 – A tale of two trajectories

Lens v Arsenal 1998 – A tale of two trajectories – Arsenal travel to RC Lens on matchday two of the UEFA Champions League (UCL) group stage, 25 years after their first-ever duel in the same competition.

Here’s a look back at that landmark meeting, and how times have changed for both clubs over the past quarter-century.

Lens v Arsenal 1998
Fans of Lens during the Ligue 1 Uber Eats match between Strasbourg and Lens. (Photo by Daniel Derajinski/Icon Sport) – Photo by Icon sport

Lens v Arsenal 1998 – Setting the scene

The Titanic had long gone down, the Millennium Dome was going up – and in the opinion of many, then-president Bill Clinton was going up and down whenever he got the chance. But on the pitch, Arsenal were doing the business in a much more wholesome way, and faced Lens in their maiden UCL battle.

This was the autumn of 1998, and a meeting of gregarious Gallic minds. In the red corner, Arsene Wenger and trusted lieutenant Emmanuel Petit had proven the cream of the crop after a blistering 10-game winning run delivered the Premier League trophy to Highbury, prior to victory in the FA Cup final:

But the Lens squad of this time was, in several ways, even more dangerous than the one that stunned Ligue 1 last term by finishing second.

They almost won a double that year themselves, losing 2-1 to PSG in the Coupe de France final. At the helm was Daniel Leclercq, a former player of nine years and 289 appearances with the Sang et Or, who knew the very spirit of Lens better than anyone.

A saga begins…

A healthy 33,371 packed out the Stade Félix-Bollaert on 16 September 1998. A combative, goalless first-half ensued, before Marc Overmars finished off a sweeping passing move on 51 minutes, being assisted by Petit in his home country.

Lens pushed for the equaliser and duly got one in stoppage time. Eric Sikora’s free-kick was well-saved by David Seaman, but the resulting corner from Daniel Moreira was then tapped in by Vairelles following a headed flick-on to send the home crowd wild.

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RC Lens fans during the UEFA Champions League match, Group B, between Sevilla FC and RC Lens played at Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium on September 20, 2023 in Sevilla, Spain. (Photo by Antonio Pozo / Pressinphoto / Icon Sport) – Photo by Icon sport

Lens v Arsenal 1998 – Boom and bust

Curiously, the two sides met again in the UEFA Cup semis, just a year and a half later in April 2000. But while the short term was kind to both, Lens eventually declined. In the 2007/08 season, they were shockingly relegated to Ligue 2, despite reaching another cup final.

This, combined with the fact that matchday one saw Lens break a 20-year absence from the UCL, will make them one of the hungriest opponents Arsenal has yet faced this season. They also have some momentum, with two successive wins lifting them into Ligue 1’s mid-table region after a dreadful start.

The Gunners have seen a similar trajectory to Lens over the 25 years since that maiden clash, albeit to a less extreme extent, with multiple trophies – including two more Premier League titles – in Wenger’s early years. But a nine-year trophy drought between 2005 and 2014 had hints of Lens’ bleaker yesterdays.

Following the matchday one romp against PSV, this will also be Arsenal’s first UCL away game in six years, so they too have every reason to be motivated. As such, Arsenal will be expected to have the lion’s share of possession despite being away from home, having averaged more than Lens in their respective domestic leagues so far this term.

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LONDON – Arsenal celebrates the 1-0 against Bukayo Saka of Arsenal FC during the UEFA Champions League match between Arsenal FC and PSV Eindhoven at the Emirates Stadium on September 20, 2023 in London, United Kingdom. ANP MAURICE VAN STEEN – Photo by Icon sport

Lens v Arsenal 2023 – One to watch

The hosts may also feel inclined to play for a point against the group favourites. After all, they are the group’s rank underdogs if UEFA coefficients are to be believed, having been drawn from pot four in this UCL edition.

Yet, despite Arsenal going into this clash as favourites, they should not take their opposition too lightly. Florian Sotoca is perhaps the biggest danger to the visitors, having recorded one goal and two assists in his opening six Ligue 1 games, while he also averages more key passes per match than any of his team-mates in the division. He also recorded the most key passes (three) against Sevilla on UCL matchday one.

Declan Rice is likely the one who will be tasked with keeping an eye on the playmaker, and given the impressive start that he has made in Arsenal colours, it will likely be a battle that he will relish. If Lens are going to get anything out of the game, then Sotoca will be key, but given the firepower Arteta has at his disposal, expect a relatively comfortable away win.

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