Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Arsenal and RC Lens meet in the Champions League 23 years after their last high-stakes European matchup

When Arsenal head to Lens on Tuesday in a UEFA Champions League Group B clash it will be a reunion of sorts (catch the action on Paramount+).  Much has changed since RC Lens and Arsenal last met on the European stage in the 2000 UEFA Cup semifinals. Les Sang et Or spent the best part of 10 years in the second tier of French soccer after relegation from Ligue 1 and financial troubles while the Gunners excelled under Arsene Wenger and won three Premier League titles as well as seven FA Cup trophies. Both Lens and Arsenal are unrecognizable from their 2000 meetings let alone their last UCL encounter which came two years earlier in 1998. Tuesday’s matchup promises to be a major event in northern France with Stade Bollaert-Delelis famous for its electric atmosphere on continental nights.

We look back to the previous meetings between the French and English outfits and remember some familiar faces from both of those two-legged affairs.

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1998: Champions League Group E

The last time these two met in the Champions League was 25 years ago in the group stages which would eventually see Lens finish second to Dynamo Kiev. The Ukrainian giants would go on to reach the semifinals where they were edged out by beaten finalists Bayern Munich who lost in dramatic circumstances to Arsenal’s domestic rivals Manchester United. Lens got the better of the Gunners over these two games with a 1-1 draw at home before a famous 1-0 victory away.

Marc Overmars looked as if he had secured all three points for Wenger’s visitors in France before a late Tony Vairelles equalizer ensured that it finished level but Mickael Debeve’s solitary goal 18 minutes from time confirmed a memorable Lens success at Wembley. Debeve was later assistant to head coach Philippe Montanier in Ligue 2 before Franck Haise was moved up to the top job and it is the latter who has brought the club back to the Champions League stage. However, Debeve was not the only familiar name that night with RCL’s Vladimir Smicer remembered fondly by Liverpool fans as a 2005 Champions League final hero while Alex Nyarko would later play on the Blue half of Merseyside for Everton.

Most poignantly, Cameroon international Marc-Vivien Foe was an unused substitute in London and would later go on to play for West Ham United, Olympique Lyonnais and Manchester City on loan before collapsing and dying at the age of 28 in Lyon during the 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup. Foe did not feature against Arsenal but did score City’s final goal at their former Maine Road home. 

In the opposite dugout, Arsenal’s French revolution was well underway by this point and Wenger had Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Nicolas Anelka, Remi Garde and Gilles Grimandi involved over the two games while Liberian striker Christopher Wreh — who started his career in France with AS Monaco and then EA Guingamp — also featured.

Lens’ Vairelles denied Arsenal a win in Northern France when he canceled out Overmars’ opener and saw red at Wembley — he would later play for France and Lyon but also spend time in prison for his involvement in a nightclub shooting incident near Nancy. There was mad dog Cyril Rool too who picked up one of his 187 career yellow cards (and 27 reds) across all competitions in London. Overmars himself was involved in controversy after his playing career when he left AFC Ajax in disgrace after a history of sending inappropriate messages to female colleagues came to light — the former Netherlands international is now sporting director for Belgian titleholders Royal Antwerp in UCL Group H. Belgium is also home to Arsenal legend Steve Bould who now leads City Football Group’s Lommel SK.

2000: UEFA Cup semifinals

Arsenal would get the better of Lens two years later in 2000 when the pair met in the UEFA Cup semifinals and the Gunners advanced to the final. Wenger’s men were ultimately beaten by Galatasaray on penalties in Copenhagen in the first of two continental heartbreaks under the French tactician along with the 2006 Champions League final. Dennis Bergkamp secured a 1-0 home win while Thierry Henry and Nwankwo Kanu saw off Lens’ late hopes from a Pascal Nouma goal in a 2-1 result which finished 3-1 on aggregate. Bergkamp, Henry and Kanu’s stories with the London club have been well told (and if you’d like to hear more from Henry himself about his time at Arsenal among other things, don’t miss his appearance on Kickin’ It on CBS Sports Golazo Network), but also on the field over those two legs were some other players who will be familiar to fans of English soccer in particular.

Nyarko was already there in 1998 and would join Everton later in 2000, but viral own goal sensation Franck Queudrue and Joseph-Desire Job would both play for Middlesbrough in the coming years while Olivier Dacourt was rebounding from his Everton spell before joining Leeds United. Valerien Ismael was back in France after his time with Crystal Palace and is now Watford manager after Barnsley and West Bromwich Albion stints, Preston North End star Youl Mawene was just starting out while Charles-Edouard Coridon would go on to score a famous scorpion kick goal for Paris Saint-Germain vs. defending champions FC Porto and Lamine Sakho would have a short-lived spell with pre-Hollywood era Wrexham. Arsenal’s Sylvinho would go on to coach in France with Lyon while CBS Sports analyst Freddie Ljungberg also featured as did a veteran Davor Suker.

Now, 23 years later, these two teams write their next chapters on the European stage.

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