Arsenal survived a scare on Thursday to qualify for the last 4 of the Europa League. Despite a three-goal advantage in the first leg, the Gunners were one goal away from elimination in the second leg of their quarterfinal tie. It took great passing skills from Elneny and cool finishing from Welbeck and Ramsey to draw 2-2 with CSKA Moscow.
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The Gunners will play in the semifinals of a European competition for the first time since 2009, when they got knocked out by Manchester United in the Champions League. It will also be their first semifinal in the Europa League since 2000, when they lost to Galatasaray in the final. The second-tier competition was then known as the UEFA Cup.
- How a few percent can make the difference
Subconsciously, teams lose a few percent in their level of intensity when they take a three-goal advantage into the second leg. That’s what happened to Barcelona against AS Roma in the Champions League on Tuesday. The Gunners nearly fell into the same trap. They lost duels in their own half and lacked movement in the final third. The opening goal in the 39th minute summed up the difference between the two sides. Elneny was left in a 1v2 situation and couldn’t block Kuchaev’s cross. At the far post, Nababkin outjumped Monreal for a header that Cech saved. And Chalov reacted more quickly than Mustafi to tuck the rebound home.
- Tactical moves can backfire
Down 1-0 at halftime, Wenger tried to protect Arsenal’s aggregate lead by shifting to a back three after the break with Elneny playing alongside Koscielny and Mustafi. The Gunners clearly lacked Elneny’s mobility in midfield on the second goal as neither Wilshere nor Ramsey closed down Golovin in the 50th. Cech palmed Golovin’s long-range strike into the path of Nababkin, who reacted more quickly than Monreal to pounce on the rebound and fire past Cech for a 2-0 lead. Wenger made up for his mistake by replacing Wilshere with Chambers in the 68th. Chambers played in the back three while Elneny teamed up with Ramsey in central midfield.
- Elneny had his best game of the season
The Egypt international was the only Gunner who rose to the occasion. Arsenal fans know Elneny as a utility midfielder, but not as a playmaker. On Thursday, Elneny won 2 tackles, made 1 interception, had 0 turnover and led all players with a passing accuracy of 94.3%, according to whoscored.com. But what really stood out was the 2 assists Elneny made. He slipped a through ball to Welbeck in the 75th and repeated the feat for Ramsey’s goal in stoppage time. Both assists were good examples of verticality and looked pretty similar: 15-yard forward passes. On current form, Elneny should be ahead of Wilshere in the pecking order.
- Wilshere and Lacazette performed poorly
There was no surprise with Wenger’s substitutions. The French manager yanked off the 2 worst Gunners on the pitch. Wilshere had no impact on the game. Defensively, Wilshere won 0 tackle and made 0 interception. Offensively, Wilshere made just 1 key pass although he played in a more advanced position than Elneny. By contrast, Ramsey made 3 interceptions and scored a goal. The more irritating part in Wilshere’s performance was his inability to cut turnovers. Vitinho dispossessed Wilshere in the 45th, 61st and 64th.
What was Lacazette thinking? The France international played in Moscow as if it was a friendly. Lacazette lacked end product (0 shot on target, 0 key pass) and showed poor work-rate (0 tackle won, 0 interception, 0 block). Lacazette preferred to jog quite a few times instead of closing down CSKA players. The quality of his runs in the final third was also questionable. In the closing minutes of the game against Southampton last weekend, I already noticed that Lacazette made it more difficult for Iwobi to find him by making runs at the far post. Wenger replaced an ineffective Lacazette with Iwobi in the 77th. Ozil fed Iwobi, who missed the target in the 88th with just the goalkeeper to beat. Iwobi will need to take some advice from Ramsey to improve his composure.
- Welbeck’s on fire
The England international has scored 5 goals in his last 5 games in all competitions. Welbeck has definitely increased his chances of participating in the World Cup this summer with those recent performances. His work-rate, his versatility and his efficiency are arguments that Southgate can’t ignore. I think Welbeck is a better option up front than on a wing because his passing skills are average. Welbeck wasted a counterattack with a cross slightly ahead of Ramsey in the 35th. He then overhit a through ball for the Wales midfielder in the 49th. But let’s give Welbeck some credit for initiating the goal that shattered the morale of the Russian side. Welbeck turned Nababkin and played a one-two with Elneny before shooting past Akinfeev in the 75th. He could have scored another goal in stoppage time, but the CSKA goalkeeper palmed away his shot.