Nerveless Arsenal hammer CSKA to move towards Europa League semis
Arsenal romped towards the Europa League semi-finals with a 4-1 thrashing of CSKA Moscow on Thursday in a match devoid of any of the political tension that threatened to overshadow the tie due to frosty relations between London and the Russian capital.
Britain has suspended high-level diplomatic contact with the Russian government after former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a nerve agent in the southern English city of Salisbury last month.
However, with only around 200 CSKA fans making the long journey west, there was little bad blood inside the ground for the quarter-final first leg.
And Arsenal quickly ended any doubt over the contest on the field as Aaron Ramsey and Alexandre Lacazette both scored twice in the first half to surely put the tie out of CKSA’s reach.
Languishing in sixth in the Premier League, 13 points adrift of the top four, Arsenal’s last realistic hope of qualifying for next season’s Champions League is by winning the Europa League in Lyon on May 16.
And that desperation showed in a fast start with the trickery of Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan pulling the Russian defence apart.
Mkhitaryan should have put the hosts ahead inside three minutes when he shot into the side-netting before Ramsey’s first goal of the night was ruled out for offside against Ozil.
However, the Welshman did open the scoring by rounding off a fine team move on nine minutes by firing Hector Bellerin’s cross into the roof of the net.
While CSKA were unable to cope with Arsenal’s speed of thought and movement at the back, they exposed the Gunners’ own defensive weaknesses.
Aleksandr Golovin curled home a wonderful free-kick after haphazard defending from Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny to level six minutes later.
And the Russians could even have gone in front when Ahmed Musa fired into the side-netting with just Petr Cech to beat.
Atletico in Arsenal’s way
Arsenal got the slice of fortune they needed when Ozil was controversially awarded a penalty as he fell theatrically under Georgi Schennikov’s challenge.
Lacazette has endured a frustrating debut season at the Emirates, but made the most of the cup-tied Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s absence by confidently slamming home from the spot.
Ramsey then doubled his tally for the evening in style with an audacious flick over Igor Akinfeev with the outside of his foot to give Arsenal some breathing space from a teasing Ozil cross.
Ozil was again the creator when Lacazette also grabbed a double by shooting into the far corner for his first goal from open play in nearly three months.
Arsenal should have had an even healthier advantage to take to the Russian capital next week as Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Lacazette all passed up huge chances, while only the post denied Ramsey his hat-trick.
However, the second leg should still be a mere formality to maintain their hopes that an otherwise dispiriting season can have a happy ending.
Arsenal are likely to have to beat the might of Atletico Madrid to do so, though, as the favourites for the competition eased past Sporting Lisbon 2-0 in the first leg of their quarter-final.
Koke put the 2012 winners ahead in the Spanish capital after just 22 seconds and Antoine Griezmann’s 24th goal of the season put Diego Simeone’s men on the brink of a fifth European semi-final in his seven seasons in charge.
Elsewhere, Lazio edged a six-goal thriller 4-2 against Salzburg as all four home sides took an advantage into the second leg.
RB Leipzig lead French giants Marseille 1-0 as German international striker Timo Werner got the only goal for the Bundesliga side.