Arsenals fightback from two down at Ludogorets has eased them into the last 16 of the Champions League
It took a moment of calmly executed genius to achieve it but, for a 17th year in succession, Arsenals Champions League campaign will extend into a new year. Opponents thrashed 6-0 at the Emirates Stadium a fortnight ago provided a sterner test in the chill of Sofia but Mesut zil, peripheral for much of the night, made his presence felt at the last. A player of his quality was never likely to remain becalmed for the entire game.
This match had been edging towards an unsatisfactory conclusion, locked at 2-2 after a frenzy of first half goals, when the visitors substitute Mohamed Elneny clipped zil beyond Ludogorets back-line. The German international advanced and, with the ball bouncing awkwardly, scooped it over Milan Borjan with his left foot as the goalkeeper advanced from his penalty area. Cosmin Moti and Jos Luis Palomino still hoped to thwart him having raced back towards the goalline, but zil simply dropped his shoulder, left both centre-halves sprawled on the turf with a sway of his hips, and calmly slid Arsenals winner into the corner of the net.
The act of scoring was a thing of beauty, a goal worthier of a grander occasion than this, and a reminder of the quality Arsenal possess to extricate themselves from the most awkward of scenarios. Great players make the right decisions in the game situations they face, Arsne Wenger said with a chuckle. They always take the optimum solution. To me, it didnt look like the optimum solution, Ill admit. You wanted him to take the chance earlier, but he had enough skill to prove he was right. When the ball was in the back of the net, it was clear it had been the optimum solution after all.
As zil was pursued by his team-mates on to the running track and into the smoke drifting from the celebratory flares lit by the away support, with this arena still in awe of his timely contribution, it was easy to forget Arsenal had actually been trailing by two goals after a quarter of an hour. At that stage, ignominy had beckoned. Even in the second half, once parity had been restored, they had risked dropping behind Paris Saint-Germain at the top of GroupA for a while. The Parisians would conjure their own late drama in Basel, eventually prevailing 2-1 in stoppage time at the end, but zils reward ensures an Arsenal victory against PSG on 23November will see them claim the section.
Wengers team, unbeaten since the opening weekend of the season, would appear to be daunting opponents at present, but they will need to muster a more coherent performance than this if they are to unsettle the French champions. Certainly, they will need to be defensively tighter, even if they could point to their powers of recovery as cause for optimism. Granit Xhaka, a player who continues to court trouble with some of his wilder tackles, had guided them back into the game with a well-placed finish from zils centre midway through the first half. There was relief to be had, too, in Olivier Girouds neatly taken header from Aaron Ramseys cross just before the break which drew them level.
The striker had been making his first start of the season, buoyed by his double as a substitute at Sunderland on Saturday, and had drifted expertly between Moti and Polomino on to the delivery. Ramsey, understandably off the pace at times, had not begun a game since the opening weekend after hamstring trouble. Chris Coleman will presumably be eager to include him in his Wales squad, to be named on Wednesday, for the home World Cup qualifier against Serbia on 12 November, but Arsenal will be grateful to have the midfielder back in contention. Of more concern was the slackness at the back.
We were caught cold, Wenger offered of the dismal start, though he was just as grateful for David Ospinas saves from a rampaging Wnderson after the interval.
There was no real excuse for the errors which had presented Ludogorets with their unlikely lead. Wndersons simple free-kick had prised Arsenal apart, the ball bypassing the centre-halves and, with Ospina static on his line, Jonathan Cafu eased in front of Carl Jenkinson to prod home from close-range. It was an unhappy start for the right-back on his first Champions League appearance since December 2013, though Kieran Gibbs found the going just as tough on the opposite side. Wndersons crossfield pass was collected by Jonathan Cafu who teased space from Gibbs and centred for Claudiu Keseru to convert an eighth goal in four matches at the near-post.
Yet that was where the Bulgarians fun ended, with Arsenals recovery made to feel all the more glorious in the afterglow of zils winner. Their record in advancing from the group stages is remarkable. The most difficult thing in life is to be consistent at the top level, Wenger said. Now we have a game at home with Paris Saint-Germain when we can finish top of the group. Lets maintain the quality of our results until that match.