April 13, 2018

- Grant Whittington

While Arsenal may have ultimately made it through to the semi-finals of the much-maligned Europa League on Thursday, they were given a torrid time by CKSA Moscow in Russia.

Despite kicking off with a healthy, 4-1 lead from the first leg, the Gunners were outplayed for the first hour in Moscow, as CSKA scored twice without reply to reduce Arsenal’s aggregate lead.

Late goals from Danny Welbeck and Aaron Ramsey helped to secure a 6-3 aggregate win, however, sending Arsenal into the semi-finals and keeping their hopes of securing a Champions League place alive.

How Did a Defensive Arsenal Side Lose Their Way?

Arsenal started the second leg as the tournament’s leading scorers, with 27 goals having plundered throughout the group and knockout stages. Still, they seemed bereft of ideas and attacking intent from the outset in Russia, as Wenger chose to protect his lead and defend in depth.

Although this led to a quiet and uneventful first 30 minutes, CSKA gradually grew into the game and began to pepper Petr Cech’s goal prior to halftime.

The breakthrough came six minutes before the break, when Fedor Chalov stole in ahead of a sleeping Shkodran Mustafi to score after Cech had kept out Kirill Nababkin’s header.

After the break, CSKA maintained their intense pressing and slick passing, with the talented Aleksandr Golovkin at the heart of everything. Unsurprisingly, this led to Moscow’s second goal just five minutes after the break, as Cech could parry a fierce , 25-yard Golovkin strike into the path of Nababkin, who gleefully tapped in from close range to double the hosts lead and ramp up the pressure on the Gunners.

From Russia with Love – How Arsenal Eventually Prevailed

At this stage, CSKA were pressing furiously, with Wenger’s decision to drop midfielder Mohamed Elneny into defence as part of a back three doing little to stem the tide.

While the Russian’s went perilously close to overturning Arsenal’s advantage through Golovkin’s free-kick and a superb, long-distance strike by Sergei Ignashevic (which flew agonisingly wide), the Gunners managed to regain control of the tie with their first shot on target in the 75th minute.

Former Manchester United academy graduate Danny Welbeck was the architect, as he played a one-two with Elneny before racing on to the perfectly weighted return pass to fire high into the roof of the net. This left the Russians needing another two goals to progress, and it seemed to knock them off balance as they struggled to maintain their focus and composure on the ball.

In fact, Arsenal looked the more likely to punish a tiring CSKA on the counter-attack in the final quarter of an hour, with Welbeck forcing a fine save from Igor Akinfeev after a flowing move from deep. Then, in stoppage time, the struggling Aaron Ramsey (who had needed treatment on a badly cut foot earlier in the game), raced clear of the defence to plant a cool finish past Akinfeev and settle the tie overall.

The Last Word

In many ways, this was a typically vulnerable Arsenal performance, as their defensive frailties threatened to cost them the tie before a couple of excellent attacking moments secured their progress to the last four.

Still, they’ll need to improve considerably if they’re to make the progress further and continue to chase down a coveted Champions League place, particularly having been drawn against tournament favourites Atletico Madrid in the semi-final.

After all, Diego Simeone’s side won the Europa League twice in three years between 2010 and 2012, and despite a disappointing exit from the group stage of the Champions League this season they remain second in La Liga.

So, while Arsenal may be more than capable of overturning their formidable opponents, they’ll need to display far more focus and consistency over two legs than they did against CSKA.

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