Arsenal tapped into the much-vaunted ‘Wenger ball’ on Thursday night as they cut swathes through a naïve CSKA Moscow side.
The Russian outfit played right into the Gunners’ hands in a gung-ho first half that yielded all five of the game’s goals.
Although there were a surprising number of empty seats on show at the Emirates, for a match I thought would be a sell-out, those who did make the trip certainly had their money’s worth in a non-stop thrill-ride of entertainment in the first half.
Given that we are heading towards the business end of the competition, you could be forgiven for thinking this may have been a cagey affair as the two teams tried to work eachother out but that couldn’t have been further from the case.
The game was so open as to resemble a local five-a-side league, with the ball bypassing huge swathes of the midfield as both teams attacked with gusto.
If Moscow’s plan was to go toe-to-toe with an Arsenal side as blessed in attack as this one, you’d have to call them foolish because one thing the Gunners relish is space and the time in which to exploit it.
Moscow failed to learn the lessons of Milan’s folly as they sat off the Gunners and committed numbers into attack, leaving space for the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, and Alexandre Lacazette to drift into at will.
It was pretty feeble from the visitors, not aided but pretty naive tactics from their management. Numerous teams have showed perfectly well how to play Arsenal this season and neither CSKA nor Milan appeared to have taken heed. More fool them.
That’s not to say that Arsenal were without fault, however. In games of this nature, they do tend to expose themselves in their rush to get the ball forward as quickly as possible and it would be remiss of me not to mention that the visitors spurned a sizeable haul of chances.
Ahmed Musa, in particular, enjoyed the freedom of the left flank as Henrikh Mhikitaryan’s wanderings left Hector Bellerin to cope with the tricky winger.
But for some errant finishing from Moscow, it may have been a different contest.
That said, the free-kick they scored early in the first-half was a thing of a beauty. A once-in-a-season sort of strike that you simply have to acknowledge was too good. Bemoan the silliness of the foul that led up to it, of course, but there was nothing to be done about a ball struck so well as that.
The second half was a slightly worrying affair for the opening 25 minutes as he Gunners seemed hell-bent on scoring as many goals as was humanely possible. The attacking intent, while admirable, bordered at times on the reckless and, in truth, allowed Moscow much more territory and opportunity that was sensible, frankly.
It wasn’t until the arrival of Danny Welbeck and Mohammed Elneny after the 70-minute mark that the tempo and direction of travel changed and Arsenal actually tried out a spot of game management. Thereafter, they were much more assured and Moscow scarcely had a sniff.
And look, while it was great that Arsenal were trying to put the fixture to bed before the second leg, there is a fine line between ambitious and reckless, which is a line we have crossed all too many times in recent years.
As for the tie itself, it would take a performance of Arsenal-sized proportions to throw it away from here but if anyone does reckless complacency, it’s this Gunners outfit.
Our passage through to the next round won’t be anything like confirmed until the final whistle blows in a week or so in Russia, sad as it is.
But I take nothing away from the verve of the performance on the night. It was the sort of incisive, free-flowing football that allows Arsenal to be at their best and all credit to them for producing the goods at the right time.
Man of the match for me was Mesut Ozil, who was at his creative and elusive best, while credit must also go to Ramsey (what a goal) and Lacazette for their goals. Elneny, for me, was unsung hero, as ever, with a busy performance in the second half that went a long way to keeping Moscow at bay.
That’s the job half done. Now, let’s get in and out of Russia as quickly and as fuss free as we can and continue plotting our path towards the final. Let’s also hope that a miracle occurs and someone dumps Atletico Madrid out of the competition!