Tentative Arsenal overcome Anderlecht 2-1
(Andy Najar 71)
(Kieran Gibbs 89, Lukas Podolski 90+1)
Whatever the outcome, Arsenal always had their trusty, crumpled get-out-of-jail free card.
They usually entertained.
Win, lose or draw - and the erratic Gunners are more than capable of accomplishing all three in consecutive games - they played like an old vaudeville act at the long-gone New World Amusement Park.
They put bums on seats. They gave the punters what they wanted. They had old-school showbiz values. They performed. They rarely plodded.
But Arsenal were as tedious as they were tentative in their 2-1 win over Anderlecht yesterday morning (Singapore time).
Much has been made of Arsene Wenger's late substitutions and the dramatic come-from-behind victory in the dying moments, but their fairy-tale finish cannot obscure what went before.
The Gunners were mostly boring. They missed their quick interplay and inventiveness. They missed the injured Mesut Oezil.
Their continental campaign might have avoided the humiliation suffered by both Liverpool and Manchester City, but the context is critical here.
Anderlecht are not Real Madrid.
Despite home advantage, they bore the heavy tag of underdogs, having been humbled 3-0 by Borussia Dortmund in their previous Champions League engagement.
Coach Besnik Hasi deployed a cautious 4-5-1 and Anderlecht outfought the Gunners for a full 89 minutes, by which stage the hosts should have been ahead by at least two goals.
Just five players displayed the enterprising qualities usually associated with Arsenal. Only two of them were wearing Gunners jerseys.
Youri Tielemans is the kind of deep-lying midfielders that Wenger typically covets. He probed endlessly, encouraging swift counter-attacks with several incisive passes.
He bares similarities to a young Nemanja Matic and his midfield competence only further undermined an error-prone occasion for Mathieu Flamini.
Oh, and Tielemans is just 17 years old. Yet he found a level of confidence and maturity not always reached by Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey.
Dennis Praet was also an energetic, exciting No. 10 and Ibrahima Conte, playing on the left, twisted the night away against Calum Chambers.
Alexis Sanchez and Kieran Gibbs were Arsenal's only men of distinction. They were involved in the goals and everything positive in the visitors' performance (which wasn't much).
Sanchez switches flanks and stretches defences for fun; a raging bull among Arsenal kittens. He revelled in the Anderlecht hunt while his teammates went AWOL.
Gibbs remains vulnerable defensively, but he still provides the rarest of commodities: pace.
The Gunners' need for speed remains a huge problem. In midfield, they are addicted to plodding possession that neither hurts nor hinders the opposition.
Far too often, Arsenal went nowhere. They had the ball. And then they didn't. They played ping pong among themselves for a bit, before Tielemans or Steven Defour intervened and sent the Belgian side away on a lightning counter-attack.
Gunners fans could be forgiven for humming the Old Joni Mitchell song Big Yellow Taxi. You don't know what you've got. Till it's gone.
They desperately miss their link-man. Oezil's physical work-rate has been challenged, but his swiftness of thought was conspicuous by its absence yesterday.
Arsenal are short of canny communicators operating between the lines. Their midfield trio of Wilshere, Flamini and Ramsey are too heavy on industry and light on artistry.
Santi Cazorla's distribution was inconsistent, which isolated Danny Welbeck and left Sanchez overworked and short of options.
Oezil and Theo Walcott, for that matter, cannot return soon enough.
Wenger admitted he got lucky with his late substitutions, but the Arsenal faithful may wonder why he waited until the 74th minute to make his first change.
The Gunners had really been that ineffective.
Nacho Monreal was a red card waiting to happen, such was his clumsy tackling and poor positioning, and his relationship with Per Mertesacker is right up with there with a married couple going through an angry divorce.
Arsenal's defence invited pressure and were fortunate to still be in the game in the final moments. Gaping holes remain from front to back.
These are the kind of games that Wenger's men should dominate. This is the season that Arsenal expect to lay the foundations for a fledgling dynasty.
Neither is happening.
Despite the welcome addition of Sanchez, Arsenal's bad habits persist.
They were not dire in Belgium. They were just remarkably dull.
"If Arsenal had been playing Real Madrid, they would’ve lost 6-0 or 7-0. Wenger will say his team did well, but Arsenal fans will watch Real Madrid’s highlights and think it’s lucky Arsenal weren’t playing them because it would have been six or seven."
— Former Gunners midfielder Paul Merson
“I know from experience that the last five minutes in the Champions League, the nerves play a part. I had hope, it didn’t look like (it would happen), but it happened and that means we took all the risks and, in the end, it paid off. It was a little bit of a gamble and it worked this time.”
— Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger