I’m sure that footballers dream about games like last night. They spend all day doing boring drills and running laps so when they drift off to sleep it has to be to images of pastoral open spaces, perfect pitches, unmarked players, and about ruby red caviar passes and sapphire side-heel volleys. Only in dreams and the Europa League do such visions come true.
If Gooners were worried that CSKA Moscow might mark anyone or get close, might run around all elbows and hard fouls, those fears were allayed as Arsenal were allowed the freedom of the borough. Özil floated from space to space. Picking up the ball along the way, picking out a pass, and then floating off to another space to await the ball again.
The opening goal was credited to Ramsey and Bellerin but it was Özil who started the move, gliding in to collect and passing the ball back to Bellerin who whipped in a cross to Ramsey. Ramsey had been signaling “cutback, cutback, cutback” with semaphore arms for a minute or so before the ball came to him and this is apparently something coach Ramsey has been working on with young Bellerin.
The cutback is one of the most effective passes in football and something of a specialty for Özil. Wenger loves the throughball, Guardiola considers the cross to the near post a “half-goal”, and Özil loves the cutbacks. Another specialty of Özil is caviar. When he’s not serving up cutbacks, he’s sending out sumptuous servings of caviar to his teammates.
As much as Özil had the freedom of the pitch, CSKA also failed to mark Aaron Ramsey. Ramey didn’t barnstorm or even make big runs, he was just able to walk into spaces unmarked. A dream come true for any footballer but especially for a midfielder.
Leaving Ramsey unmarked was quite the feat from CSKA who were playing with three center backs and only had the one forward to contend with but they managed it time and again. Ramsey ended the match with seven shots, five of them right around the 11m spot thanks to CSKA’s elderly back line.
Marked or not Ramsey scored one of the best goals I’ve seen since Eduardo’s beach-volley against Burnley. Just like the Eduardo goal, Ramsey received a chipped pass from his teammate, but unlike the Eduardo goal, Ramsey still had a lot of work to do. Ramsey was facing backward and he sort of scorpion-kicked the ball over Akinfeev, who looked like a child trying to high-five a basketball player as he palmed helplessly at the ball. Even the Juventus supporters, back in their homes in Turin, stood and clapped when that ball went in.
CSKA did turn the match into a track meet for a little while in the first half and Ahmed Musa routinely made Arsenal’s back line look foolish. Despite the assist, Bellerin had another nightmare and was beat off the dribble 4/6 times in this match which isn’t quite the ringing endorsement for his recent switch to veganism that he’d like it to be.
Arsenal were also a bit lucky that after Musa beat them he typically went for the wrong option or his teammates blasted the ball well over the goal. CSKA have a clear problem with quality up front, which is as obvious as the fact that they have to play a defensive midfielder as a center forward.
That said the Golovin goal from a free kick was perfectly placed on a postage stamp. It was their one moment of quality in this match.
The famous CSKA “dirty play” turned out to be a few silly elbows and Pontus Wernbloom falling over on himself. And they spent a grand total of just 5 minutes or so pressing Arsenal, making just 14 tackles. It was a weak display from them but there was one comical moment when Blernwomb was challenged, screamed like he’d had his leg broken, rolled over grasping the leg, and then immediately popped up looking like that bulldog from the Tom and Jerry cartoons. Expect more of that, on snus, in the return leg.
With Ramsey and Özil free to do their work, Ramsey had the most shots (7), carried half of Arsenal’s expected goals, scored two beauties, and could have had a hat-trick. Meanwhile, Özil finished the match with the most touches of any player (101), most final third passes (50), most key passes (5), most assists (2), created a third goal by winning a penalty, and even could have scored a goal himself.
CSKA didn’t provide the threat they were billed to have and there’s a sense that this tie is over. But I’m not sure about that. I won’t be happy until Nacho Monreal scores Arsenal’s 8th.
I am sure that the wildness of these Europa League matches is a lot of fun and I can’t wait to see the next game.