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The England international, who suffered a hamstring issue on his return from a groin problem during the last-gasp defeat to Watford last month, made his first appearance for almost six weeks on Thursday night when he started in place of the absent Theo Walcott during a penultimate Europa League Group H tie against FC Cologne.
Welbeck – along with young wing-back Ainsley Maitland-Niles – was arguably much-changed Arsenal’s most impressive performer of an extremely tame opening half at the atmospheric RheinEnergieStadion, although featured for only 45 minutes before being replaced by Alex Iwobi at the interval.
Such an early withdrawal sparked understandable concerns that the former Manchester United forward might have picked up yet another issue, although Wenger was quick to confirm after a disappointing 1-0 defeat in Germany that he was always scheduled to come off at the midway point.
“It was the plan for Danny Welbeck to only play 45 minutes,” he told reporters, per the Evening Standard. “Medically, the risk was too great to play him for longer than that. He was ready to stay on and frustrated to come off, but he’s in good shape.”
Arsenal, who qualified for the last 32 with two matches to spare at the beginning of the month, were notably underpar for the most part against the Bundesliga’s bottom and only winless club as their 100% record in this season’s edition of Europe’s secondary club competition came to an end.
French striker Sehrou Guirassy netted a contentious second-half penalty shortly past the hour mark after falling under minimal contact from compatriot Mathieu Debuchy and the otherwise dominant visitors, who hit the post in the first half through an unlikely source in Francis Coquelin, were unable to break down Cologne’s resilient defence as they pushed for a late leveller.
“We missed the accuracy of our passing in the final third. Cologne defended with fanatic spirit and determination,” Wenger admitted. “It took us some time to inject pace into the game. I cannot fault the concentration and preparation of the players.”
While certainly a surprise given their form in the competition to date, Arsenal’s defeat to Cologne ultimately mattered little as they still sealed top spot in the group courtesy of Red Star Belgrade’s goalless draw against BATE Borisov in Barysaw. The Belarusians are scheduled to visit the Emirates Stadium on 7 December.