Basle 1 Arsenal 4: Lucas Perez was an unlikely hat-trick hero as the Spanish striker came into the cold to win Arsenal their Champions League group for the first time in six years.
Perez has been used as a squad man to date, with manager Arsene Wenger preferring Alexis Sanchez or Olivier Giroud as his principle forwards.
He has also been hampered by injury, so has understandably looked off the pace in his previous appearances, with some supporters questioning why the club signed him, let alone pay Deportivo La Coruna £17m for him in August.
However, his three goals on a freezing Basel night, playing in a wide wing role, showed his qualities and were enough help Arsenal qualify as unlikely group winners, following PSG’s inability to win their home time against Ludogorets.
Wenger made six changes to the side that beat West Ham 5-1 on Saturday, including Perez for Theo Walcott. Left-back Kieran Gibbs, selected ahead of Nacho Monreal, was the man who provided the assist for each of his goals. Another replacement, Alex Iwobi, scored Arsenal’s fourth. What inspired selections by the Frenchman!
Wenger will now be hoping his luck holds in the draw for the first knockout stage, with teams such as Bayern Munich and Real Madrid current possible opponents ahead of tonight’s final group matches. Whichever way it goes, the first place finish means Arsenal will have the benefit of playing the second leg at home whoever the play.
However, things seem to be going Wenger’s way for once and even Perez did not have to over-exert himself for his glory. He had one of the easiest finishes of his career to give Arsenal an eighth-minute lead. Alexis Sanchez dinked a pass over the last Basel defender where Gibbs controlled and squared to the 28-year-old Perez, unmarked a few yards out at the opposite post.
It was all too easy for Arsenal, who had barely allowed Basel a touch of the ball before they took the lead. The Swiss responded, though, and soon had the ball in the back of David Ospina’s net, only for their effort to be ruled out for offside.
Normal service was soon resumed, however, as Arsenal began to pass Basel to death again. After 15 minutes, Perez had the ball in the back of the net again.
It was a goal not dissimilar to the first as he had another easy close-range finish, only this time the ball came to him after a long passing sequence ended with a Gibbs shot being palmed into his path by keeper Tomas Vaclik.
News then filtered through to the cold and misty St Jakob Park that PSG were losing at home to Ludogorets and Arsenal were going through as group winners.
Cue more singing from the travelling Arsenal support, but they struggled to drown out the proud loud drummers of the home fans who chanted relentlessly to generate a real European atmosphere.
The Basel faithful seemed to be treating it like a final, even though they are no strangers to facing and beating English opposition, having won their last three home matches against Premier League sides and losing to only PSG and Real Madrid in their last eight home Euro ties.
They nearly had something to cheer about even more five minutes before half- time when Renato Steffen produced a full-length save from David Ospina with a rasping shot from the edge of the area.
A minute and 30 seconds into the second half and Perez completed his hat-trick with his third chance of the match. Gibbs won possession on the halfway line with a strong tackle and his through ball deflected into the Spaniard’s run and he struck past Vaclik with a first-time effort.
Iwobi started and finished the move for Arsenal’s fourth, which was another easy finish after an inch-perfect final pass from Mesut Ozil.
Sanchez thumped the cross bar with an incredible swirling free-kick 10 minutes later and it proved to be his last significant contribution before he was withdrawn for Giroud with 20 minutes to go.
With Mohamed Elneny also coming on, Arsenal now had two former Basel players on the pitch along with fellow midfielder Granit Xhaka.
However, it made no difference, as it was Basel’s Ivorian substitute Seydou Doumbia who pulled a goal back in the 78th minute.
A nervy finish for Arsenal fans ensued with news PSG had drawn level in Paris, but they could only manage a 2-2 draw with the Bulgarians in the end, a result that deprived Basel a Europa League spot too.
Vaclik 4, M Lang 5, Suchy 5, Balanta 5, Traore 6; Serey Die 6, T Xhaka 6; Elyounoussi 5 (Calla 59), Delgado 5 (Doumbia 55), Steffen 6; Janko 6.
Vailati, Sayed Gaber, Zuffi, Bjarnason, Hoegh, Calla, Vailati.
Ospina 7; Gabriel 7, Holding 7, Koscielny 6, Gibbs 8; G. Xhaka 7, Ramsey 7 (Elneny 70); Iwobi, Ozil 8 (Walcott 74, 6), Lucas; Alexis (Giroud 70).
Cech, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Monreal, Mustafi.
Jorge Sousa (Portugal)
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