Sublime Mesut Özil goal helps Arsenal qualify in style
Arsène Wenger’s side come back from two goals down in Sofia
Arsenal’s Mesut Özil lobs Ludogorets Razgrad’s goalkeeper Milan Borjan before scoring their third goal during the Champions League Group A game at the Vasil Levski National Stadium in Sofia, Bulgaria. Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images via Reuters/Livepic
Ludogorets 2 Arsenal 3
It took a moment of calmly executed genius to achieve it but for a 17th year in succession, Arsenal’s Champions League campaign will extend into the new year. A team Arsène Wenger’s charges had thrashed back at the Emirates only last month provided a sterner test in the chill of Sofia but Mesut Özil, quiet for much of the night, would make his presence felt at the last. His quality would not stay suppressed for ever.
This game was edging towards its conclusion, the scores locked after a frenzy of first-half goals, when the visitors’ substitute Mohamed Elneny clipped the World Cup winner beyond Ludogorets Razgrad’s back line. Özil advanced and with the ball bouncing awkwardly, scooped it over the advancing Milan Borjan with his left foot to progress serenely into the penalty area.
Both Cosmin Moti and José Luis Palomino still aspired to thwart him having burst to the goal-line, but the German dropped his shoulder, left both centre halves sprawled on the turf, and calmly slid in Arsenal’s winner. The conversion was a thing of beauty and ensured his side go into their decisive contest, with Paris Saint-Germain, still top of the group.
The home team’s manager, Georgi Dermendzhiev, had suggested on the eve of this tie that their approach would be more “cautious” in Sofia after a gung-ho outlook, combined with some utterly atrocious defending, contributed to that brutal drubbing in London a fortnight ago.
As it was, any fear this might degenerate into a cagey affair was buried amid an early flurry of goals. Ludogorets’ forte is clearly their front line, with Jonathan Cafu and Wanderson providing creative sparks from the flanks and the stocky Romanian, Claudiu Keseru, a centre forward in form. Given their clear deficiencies at the back, attack appeared to be their only form of defence at this lofty level.
The host side had built and tossed away a lead by the interval, with neither side able to exert any kind of control on a frantic contest, but Arsenal were the more relieved. Ludogorets had actually created plenty of openings at the Emirates only to choke with the final shot or pass.
Indeed, Wenger had been at pains to remind his players of the threat a team who had ended up humiliated in a 6-0 defeat had actually posed. Yet the warnings were not heeded.
Even without both first-choice full backs there was no excusing the slackness of Arsenal’s approach in the opening quarter, when the Bulgarian team had threatened to be ruthless.
A simple free-kick, after Granit Xhaka was penalised for handball, delivered into the six-yard box by Wanderson, had prised them apart initially. The ball by-passed the centre halves and with David Ospina static on his line, Cafu eased in front of Carl Jenkinson to prod in 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.
Wanderson’s cross-field pass was collected by Cafu, who teased space from Gibbs and centred for Keseru to convert an eighth goal in four matches at the near-post. The Romanian might have added another just before the interval, with Arsenal again hesitant at Marcelinho’s corner.
By then the visitors had restored parity. Xhaka had guided them back into the game with a nicely placed finish from Özil’s smart pull-back, home defenders having been distracted by Olivier Giroud’s air-kick at the near-post. The Frenchman was making his first start of the season and having scored with his first two touches off the bench at Sunderland on Saturday, has clearly found some rhythm already. Admittedly, he benefited from neither Moti nor Palomino noticing his amble into space between centre halves four minutes from the interval to nod in Aaron Ramsey’s cross, but the finish was still emphatic.
Ramsey was another making a welcome appearance having not started a match since the opening weekend of term after hamstring trouble. Chris Coleman will have been an interested observer as he prepares to name his squad for the World Cup qualifier against Serbia on Wednesday, for all that the midfielder was understandably slightly off the pace at times. In truth, though Arsenal clearly had more quality, there was a sloppiness to much of their play which will have infuriated Wenger, shivering on the sidelines.
It took Ospina’s smart reactions to deny Wanderson twice around the hour-mark, the first chance stemming from a breathless counter-attack. They were misses which left Arsenal on edge. Frustration was mounting, the need to match PSG’s result all too clear and news of Luca Zuffi’s equaliser for Basel in Switzerland only filtering through late, but too many players were struggling to impose themselves on a game they had hoped to dominate.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain eventually injected some energy on the right flank, forcing his marker, Natanael, into retreat and steering an effort wide, while Laurent Koscielny even burst upfield on occasion as Arsenal sought late reward. That would be provided by Özil in stunning fashion which, even with PSG’s even later winner, served to thrust Wenger’s team into the knock-out phase yet again.
This group is theirs to claim.