The former Manchester United man continued his fine form in front of goal as the Gunners narrowly avoided an embarrassing Europa League exit
If you had told Arsene Wenger on Monday morning that his team would all but emulate Barcelona this week then he surely would have bitten your hand off. And yet just after half-time in Moscow, the Arsenal boss must have been fearing the worst given events around Europe this week.
Like Barca, the Gunners arrived in the Russian capital with a 4-1 lead to defend, only to find themselves 2-0 down with 40 minutes still left on the clock. Defensive inconsistency is something Arsenal fans have come accustomed to over the past few seasons, and the bad habits yet again returned to their backline on Thursday.
Wenger had named his strongest possible team at the chilly VEB Arena, with Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Alexandre Lacazette all starting. Perhaps more striking was his substitutes bench, with the veteran coach selecting four defenders among his seven replacements.
That meant an inclusion for club captain Per Mertesacker, who recently admitted that he would rather not play for Arsenal again because of the mental and physical burden. The German was seemingly preferred to teenage talent Reiss Nelson, and for much of the first hour it seemed that negative attitude had spread to Wenger’s players on the pitch.
Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev and twin defenders Vasili and Alexei Berezutski were all part of CSKA’s starting XI the last time these two teams met in the Champions League over a decade ago. On that night in Moscow the Gunners lost 1-0 after struggling to create any opportunities of note, and it was a similar story almost 11 years later as Wenger’s men failed to record a shot on target until Danny Welbeck’s finally settled their nerves 15 minutes before time.
Until the England international’s intervention the one-way traffic mirrored that of Moscow’s roads for much of the day. On a day when Russia celebrated the 57th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s maiden voyage into space, it was Arsenal’s defence who allowed Fedor Chalov to rocket into the box unchallenged and slot home from close range six minutes before the break.
Wenger opted to change things at half-time, switching to a five-man defence with Mohamed Elneny at the heart of it – an experiment that that lasted all of five minutes after Petr Cech palmed Aleksandr Golovin’s long-range effort straight into Kirill Nababkin’s path. It was another overtly negative move from the Arsenal boss, and though he was quick to reverse his decision, there was no doubt it cost his team what could have been a crucial goal.
For Cech’s part he was arguably at fault for both goals, with the voices of those who believe he should be replaced this summer getting ever louder after a display that saw him struggle with his distribution as much as anything else.
Jack Wilshere, meanwhile, seems to already have his mind on other things. His second successive poor performance featured a number of misplaced passes as well as a couple of customary slumps to the ground with niggling injuries. His inability to influence matches as he would have liked to in recent weeks have justified the club’s decision to only offer him an incentive-based deal, and a departure on a free now seems inevitable.
Somewhat unsurprisingly it was only when Wilshere was replaced that Arsenal were able to find a foothold in the game. Though Calum Chambers’ introduction meant a return to five at the back, this time Elneny was offered a little more freedom to get forward, and it was his brilliantly weighted pass into Welbeck’s path that allowed them to wrest back control of the tie.
Elneny revealed that he had offers to leave north London before signing a contract extension last week, and in providing two assists on the night he showcased exactly why the Gunners were so keen to keep him despite his relative lack of game time this season.
Welbeck, meanwhile, now has five goals in his last four starts, with his form putting him back in the frame for England’s World Cup squad. The 27-year-old is – much like his club – coming good at the right time.
His goal along with the stoppage-time strike from Aaron Ramsey was enough to see Arsenal through to a first European semi-final for nine years. In a week when so many threw away their shots at continental glory they live to fight another day. Maybe this might be Arsenal’s year after all.