Arsenal being Arsenal, it was never going to be straightforward. For much of the evening Arsène Wenger’s players did their best to emulate Barcelona’s performance at Roma in a way that nobody at Arsenal would have wanted as CSKA Moscow threatened to overturn a three-goal deficit and inflict the sort of humiliation that the Frenchman would have struggled to survive.
Yet with CSKA two goals to the good, courtesy of close-range efforts from Fedor Chalov and Kiril Nababkin, and chasing the decisive third blow that would have seen Arsenal eliminated, the Premier League club found salvation in the shape of Danny Welbeck. Aaron Ramsey secured the draw in injury time.
Relief coursed through Wenger and the rest of the Arsenal bench as the England international scored 15 minutes from time to give the visitors the breathing space they so badly needed.
Their six-match winning run is over and this was such a poor performance from a team that played with so little conviction, yet all that matters right now is that Arsenal’s hopes of winning the Europa League remain alive and they are through to their first European semi-final in nine years.
Around 300 or so Arsenal fans made the long trip to Moscow for a game that was taking place amid a backdrop of growing political tension between the United Kingdom and Russia. Wenger had no concerns beforehand about the match itself and CSKA seemed eager to demonstrate that they could be seen as welcoming hosts by handing out traditional Russian hats to the Arsenal fans.
On the face of it, there was nothing for Arsenal to fear here. CSKA had won only two of their previous 10 European home fixtures and the way the Russian team defended in the first leg, when Arsenal scored four in the first half and should have put the tie to bed in the second, ought to have given Wenger’s players plenty of encouragement.
The onus was on CSKA to open Arsenal up at the other end, yet that rarely looked like happening in a drab opening half hour in which the noise created by the partisan home supporters was far more impressive than anything their players produced on the pitch. Aside from the odd burst of pace from Ahmed Musa, the on-loan Leicester striker who had been lively in the first leg, CSKA offered little and it appeared as though Arsenal would get to half-time without any problems.
That was the theory but Arsenal never make life easy for themselves and so it proved yet again as CSKA took the lead six minutes before the interval. The damage was done on the Arsenal right, where Héctor Bellerín was caught out and Konstantin Kuchaev had too much space to deliver a cross that was met by the head of Kirill Nababkin, climbing above Nacho Monreal. Petr Cech, diving low to his right, managed to claw the ball out with an instinctive save but Chalov reacted quicker than Shkodran Mustafi to the loose ball and stabbed home from a couple of yards.
Arsenal suddenly had a game on their hands, renewed belief surged through the CSKA players and things quickly started to go from bad to worse for Wenger. Ramsey headed down the tunnel on a stretcher and Jack Wilshere was seen clutching a calf in clear discomfort moments later. CSKA were now in firm control and almost had a second in the 43rd minute, when Kristijan Bistrovic’s rising first-time shot from just outside the penalty area flashed past an upright with Cech looking on anxiously.
An additional concern for Arsenal was that they looked so toothless in attack in the first half. They got into some promising positions at times but the poor cut-back that Danny Welbeck delivered to Ramsey, shortly before the midfielder went down injured, was typical of their carelessness during that period. Indeed Arsenal finished the opening 45 minutes without registering a shot on target and though Wenger decided against replacing Ramsey and was rewarded when the Welshman returned before the interval.
The good news for Arsenal was that Wilshere also re-emerged for the second half. The bad news was that CSKA had doubled their lead within five minutes of the restart as Arsenal continued to play with so little urgency. It was a desperately poor goal to concede in so many respects and started with Ramsey giving away the ball inside the Arsenal half with a blind pass.
Aleksandr Golovin picked up possession a couple of passes later and with no Arsenal player attempting to close him down, the midfielder accepted the invitation to shoot from 30 yards. Cech was well-positioned to make the save but the Arsenal goalkeeper made a pig’s ear of things and succeeded only in parrying the ball into the path of Nababkin, who swept home with the minimum of fuss.
Arsenal were on the rack. Golovin’s 25-yard free-kick was turned around a post by Cech and Sergei Ignashevich thumped a shot just wide. The visitors needed some inspiration and Welbeck provided it as he playing a neat one-two with Mohamed Elneny before finishing with a flourish.