On paper, the task was a simple one for Arsenal: preserve a 4-1 aggregate lead to advance. The execution, however, was anything but. For more than 60 minutes, it looked as if CSKA would overturn their first leg deficit and advance on away goals. Full credit to the Gunners - away from home with the momentum against them, they dug deep, found a goal (and then another), got a 2-2 draw, and won the tie 6-3 on aggregate.
The first thirty-five minutes of the match were uneventful, which suited Arsenal fine. The onus was on CSKA to make something happen, and eventually they did. CSKA’s first goal featured poor defending all around from Arsenal. Nacho Monreal was put off far too easily by a bump / shove to lose the original header (in fairness, it could have been called a foul), and Shkodran Mustafi was caught ball watching as Fyodor Chalov ran past him to slam the ball into the back of the net.
The tie got even more nerve-wracking just 5 minutes into the second half. Petr Čech gave up a juicy rebound on a long, dipping shot from Aleksandr Golovin that Kirill Nababkin reached ahead of Nacho Monreal to bring the hosts to within one goal of the lead in the tie. Čech probably could have done better with his rebound control, but it’s not clear when he saw the shot and it did dip nastily as it got close to the goal. More problematic was Monreal getting beat cleanly to the rebound - he needed to at least get a body on Nababkin to make the finish more difficult. The Spaniard has been one of Arsenal’s best and most important players this season, but tonight was not his night.
Buoyed by the early second half goal, CSKA dominated the play and had good chances to take the lead in the tie (on away goals). In an attempt to change the momentum and preserve the lead, Arsene Wenger brought Calum Chambers on for Jack Wilshere (who put in a poor performance) in the 68th minute and switched to three centerbacks. Whether it was the change, Arsenal raising their level, CSKA running out of gas, or a combination of those factors, the Gunners stopped conceding dangerous chances and came back into the match. Credit to Wenger for making the move, it turned out to be the right one.
Arsenal finally got some much needed breathing room in the 75th minute when Danny Welbeck carried the ball off the left wing, combined nicely with Mohamed Elneny, and cooly curled his shot into the far corner. Aaron Ramsey added a second goal in injury time after Elneny put him in 1-on-1 with the keeper.
Elneny was Arsenal’s best player this evening. He wasn’t spectacular and didn’t do anything that stood out - he just had a strong, solid game. He defended well, his positioning was on point, and he didn’t misplace many passes. He was also involved on both of Arsenal’s goals. Laurent Koscielny, Danny Welbeck, and Mesut Özil all had good games as well.
It got nervy. It wasn’t pretty. But in the end Arsenal held on, and the dream of returning to the Champions League lives on. The Gunners will face one of Atlético Madrid, Marseille, or FC Red Bull Salzburg in the Europa League semifinals in two weeks. The draw will take place at 3 AM PT | 6 AM ET | 11 AM BT tomorrow (Friday) April 13th, and we’ll have coverage and analysis for you here at TSF.