Arsenal survive CSKA scare to advance to Europa League semi-finals
It says plenty about the new reality for Arsenal that this 2-2 draw with to CSKA Moscow, a game in which they lost the plot and nearly lost the tie, is nonetheless a crucial step in their season.
All Arsenal had to do here was avoid losing 3-0 to make it into the semi-finals of the Europa League. But after going 2-0 down, and surrendering any grip on the game, Arsenal were heading for exactly that. All that talk about learning from Barcelona's defeat in Rome looked presumptuous, as a limited CSKA Moscow found it far too easy to cut through. Fedor Chalov and Kirill Nababkin scored either side of half-time, both taking advantage of Petr Cech palm outs and static defending to tap in.
This was not a young Arsenal team, not with Cech, Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey all playing. But they looked lost for long periods and were ultimately saved at the end. Danny Welbeck converted from a one-two with Mohamed Elneny with 15 minutes left, an away goal that killed CSKA's momentum, before Aaron Ramsey scored a second, to equalise on the night, with the game's last kick.
Arsenal admitted beforehand that Barcelona’s experience in Rome on Tuesday night was on their minds. They had to avoid a Russian repeat, which meant quietening the crowd, holding off the early surge, making sure that this never felt like the hosts were on the brink of something special.
Of course the CSKA fans were loud, tucked in close to the pitch in their modern new home. Their players responded: Kristijan Bistrovic flattened Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey in the opening minutes. Aleksandr Golovin got on the ball, Ahmed Musa ran in behind, and the Arsenal centre-backs had to do more desperate defending than they did for all of that comfortable first leg last week. It was immediately clear why Arsene Wenger had brought Laurent Koscielny back for this game.
But what was so frustrating for Arsenal is that they had ridden out the early pressure, and had started to look comfortable, before conceding the first just before the break. Maybe complacency had started to creep in, after they twice threatened on the break. Maybe they were unsettled by the arrival of Vitinho for the injured Alan Dzagoev, giving CSKA an extra body in the box. But the goal was all far too easy: Konstantin Kuchaev’s unchallenged cross from the left, Kirill Nababkin’s free header at Petr Cech, Fedor Chalov’s easy tap in, without an Arsenal defender anywhere near him.
Suddenly the second half had a different feel: CSKA only needed two to knock Arsenal out. And they had the crowd with them, the ball, and Arsenal pinned back in their box, defending to keep their season alive.
Arsenal needed to take the sting out of the game, but that means defending better than this: closing down, anticipating, reacting, the whole thing. But that is not how it went. Five minutes after the re-start Golovin unleashed a hopeful 30-yarder, Cech parried it back into play and Nababkin reacted far quicker than Nacho Monreal to tuck in the rebound.
All that talk about learning the lessons of Barcelona looked empty, given how sloppy and passive Arsenal were here. They did not have to win this game but they did at least have to control it, contain it or even just slow it down. And they could not do any of that, standing idly and confused as the game happened briskly around them. Cech had to dive to save from Kuchaev, and when Ahmed Musa ran into Shkodran Mustafi a harsher referee could have given a penalty.
Arsenal needed to change the game because they were heading for disaster. So Jack Wilshere was hauled off and Calum Chambers came on, a third centre-back, a new formation to stem the tide.
Within minutes, Arsenal had scored, an away goal that doubled what CSKA had left to do. Welbeck, still full of running, left Nababkin behind out on the left, passed to Elneny and ran in behind the CSKA defence. Receiving Elneny's perfect through ball, Welbeck opened up his body and finished past Igor Akinfeev.
That effectively killed CSKA off and when Ramsey raced through in stoppage time his finish was enough to make it 2-2 on the night and 6-3 overall. A score that looked far better in the end than it might have done 20 minutes before.