If you’re anything like me, you know nothing about today’s Champions League opponent and are probably still working through how it feels to hear that anthem again rather than thinking through who we’ll be facing. After all, it’s been a rough six years since we’ve enjoyed that anthem first-hand. We’ve been given a very favourable draw, which surely has us dreaming of winning this group and advancing to the knockout stage. Surely, RC Lens are little more than a speedbump…aren’t they?
Not so fast. Les sangs et or (the blood and gold) pushed PSG to the very last match in Ligue 1 last season, finishing just one point below the not-at-all gaudy juggernauts of France. Along the way, they boasted the stingiest defense in the league, conceding just 29 goals in 38 matches. That would add up to quite a few clean sheets if my maths are correct. On the other hand, they’ve struggled to kick on this season due to poor transfer dealings and a rugged set of fixtures. Still, it would be all too easy to underestimate them given that they’re in Everton-ish territory—just a point about the drop-zone.
After last season’s historic second-place finish, Lens sold captain and bedrock Seko Fofana to Saudi club Al-Nassr for around £22m. The club didn’t bring in a like–for-like replacement, and the defense has suffered considerably. Lens have already conceded 12 goals from seven matches. That’s a sea-change from a season ago when they averaged a Scrooge-ish 0.76 goals conceded per match.
As if losing Fofana were not fatal enough, Lens also lost striker Loïs Openda to RB Leipzig on a £35m transfer. The 21-year old Belgian had bagged 21 goals last seasn, and suffice it to say that 20-year old Elye Wahi has yet to impress, having scoring just one goal thus far.
The bigger picture does offer Lens some degree of compassion. Though they are barely keeping their heads above water in Ligue 1, they’ve had to play away to PSG and Monaco (both losses) and home to Rennes. This would be roughly equivalent to us going to the Etihad and Topspur and hosting, i don’t know, Liverpool. Add in another quixotic loss in which they took 31 shots to the two that newly promoted Metz took—and lost 0-1. Those are some serious Sean Dyche vibes right there. What’s more, they went into Sevilla’s Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium and very nearly came away with a famous victory, ultimately settling for a 1-1 draw.
It would be easy and enjoyable to scoff and laugh at our beret-wearing, chardonnay-sipping, cheese-eating surrender monkeys, but we’ve taken just a few too many hits to the proverbial glass jaw to simply waltz into this one. While I’m sure that Arteta will rotate heavily ahead of Sunday’s somewhat more-seismic clash against Man City, expect him to name a side fully capable of seizing all three points. While there may be some room for some academy players like Nwaneri or Cozier-Duberry, we may just see run-outs for a freshly-fit Partey, a new-bounce-in-his-step Havertz, and a point-to-prove Smith Rowe. I do hope there’s enough confidence going in that Saka and Ødegaard (among others) can be rested at long last.
In the end, more is usually said than done, but it has to feel like we should come away with a relatively comfortable victory. At a risk of disrespecting our hosts, this is one of the easier fixtures in the group stage.
My prediction: Rens 0-3 Arsenal. Share yours in the comments-section below.