Ramsey dazzles as Arsenal thrash CSKA Moscow in Europa League
LONDON, England -- Three thoughts on Arsenal's 4-1 win over CSKA Moscow in their Europa League quarterfinal, first leg, at the Emirates.
1. Arsenal put one foot in Europa League semifinals
Arsenal have almost certain to reach the Europa League semifinals, and even by their standards, it would take some capitulation to overturn their 4-1 advantage in next Thursday's second leg against CSKA Moscow. Two goals from Aaron Ramsey and a pair from Alexandre Lacazette (one a penalty) adorned a match whose scoring was completed before half-time, and Arsenal could realistically have doubled their tally.
Ramsey gave Arsenal the perfect start. Only nine minutes had passed when the midfielder, meeting a first-time Hector Bellerin cut-back pass with characteristic timing and precision, side-footed into the roof of the net from 10 yards and calmed any nerves around the Emirates. Mesut Ozil already had come close for the home side as CSKA's defence appeared ripe for further exposure.
Yet it is rarely that straightforward for Arsenal these days. They were undone by the visitors within six minutes, although it was a wonderful strike from highly rated CSKA midfielder Aleksandr Golovin that levelled the score. His free kick from just beyond the box flew beyond Petr Cech and changed the complexion of the tie; it could have altered further just seconds after the restart but Ahmed Musa shot into the side netting after a rapid burst sent him free down the left.
As if that start wasn't enough, only a quarter of the match had passed when the pendulum swung again, with Lacazette converting calmly from the penalty spot after Georgi Schennikov was judged by the goal-side official to have fouled Ozil. Far better was to come: An onside Ramsey cushioned a wonderful back-heel flick over Igor Akinfeev from Ozil's chipped pass to give Arsenal some breathing space.
Ten minutes before half-time they had even more room: Lacazette was allowed far too much time to control another Ozil delivery and spear, left-footed, into the bottom corner. Arsenal were creating openings at will and there was a sense that one more goal would kill the tie once and for all.
Ramsey twice had chances to score again early in the second half, missing from inside the box on both occasions, and then struck the post in the 77th minute. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi passed up on opportunities, too, as Arsenal, while still afforded ample space, were not quite as clinical after the break.
Near the end Akinfeev saved superbly to deny substitute Danny Welbeck, who was 6 yards out and looked certain to score. Should CSKA strike an early goal in a week's time, that save may feel like a big moment, but for now, Arsenal look beautifully poised to progress.
2. Brilliant Ramsey drives Arsenal on again
Ramsey has been Arsenal's best player throughout a troubled, turbulent season and it was fitting that he produced in such thrilling fashion on Thursday night. Even in their darkest hours he has been an insistent, relentless presence, the nearest thing a perilously listing ship has possessed to a rudder. He is now 27 years old, and although there have been false dawns before, it feels as if his time is now: This was the performance of a leader who surely belongs on a more exalted stage.
The joy of Ramsey is that while that dynamic midfield is such an important part of his game, he has works of art up his sleeve too. His second goal will be replayed countless times over the coming days and it was not only the improvisation or mid-air twist to beat Akinfeev that made it special. Perhaps most magical of all was the way in which he managed to cushion his touch, leaping to greet Ozil's high, dropping pass and apply the most difficult, delicate of finishes.
The technique was flawless. The goal was critical in its own right, too, given the scoreline at the time and the importance of the match; if we're admiring marriages of sublime skill and big-game timing, then this, in its own way, rivalled Cristiano Ronaldo's exhilarating moment in Turin on Tuesday night.
Other Arsenal players stepped up as well. When Ozil is allowed this kind of freedom, he tends to run riot; this was exhibition stuff from the Germany international at times, his passes pulsing with intent and his tricks invariably coming off. He tallied three assists (if the penalty is counted) and deserved a couple more.
Lacazette, back from injury and starting his first match since Jan. 30, looked sharp and his second goal was excellently taken. If Arsenal are to win this competition, then the France international, a top-class spearhead at his best, may have to produce a few more moments like this. Ramsey may do, too, but the quality of his all-round contribution can hardly be in any doubt.
3. CSKA's aging defence falls well short
If they stretched their memories, CSKA's entire defence could recall a much more satisfying night at the Emirates.
Remarkably, their centre-backs (Sergey Ignashevich, Aleksey Berezutsky, Vasily Berezutsky) and goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev, all played when the Russian side held Arsenal to a goalless draw here in the 2006-07 Champions League group stage. They have a combined age of 139 but with age comes considerable wisdom: All four also worked in tandem when, in 2005, CSKA defeated Sporting Lisbon 3-1 to win the UEFA Cup.
It would take some comeback for them to have any hope of repeating the feat this year.
Back in September, Manchester United's speed and movement -- Mkhitaryan was among their tormentors just as he was for Arsenal on Thursday night -- tore them apart on their own turf and suggested the famous back line's day at the top level is done. That is surely the case after this first leg: A collective terror enveloped CSKA whenever Arsenal's forwards ran at them and, understandably backing off rather than risking being beaten to a challenge, they only succeeded in causing themselves serious problems. (The move in which Ozil was fouled inside the area proving a case in point.)
While Ramsey's second goal was sublime, he found himself in a barely believable amount of space and, for the hosts, it was all too easy to pull away from their statuesque, lumbering markers.
That will be all the more frustrating for CSKA's manager, Viktor Goncharenko, whose side played some flowing football further forward and should have added to Golovin's outstanding strike. Vasily Berezutsky and Alan Dzagoev both missed chances in the first half while Musa, whose speed was a constant threat, might have laid on a couple more had he shown greater awareness. They posed a consistent threat against an unconvincing defence and probably will next week, too.
However, the inadequacy of their own once-feted rearguard means this tie has almost certainly slipped beyond them.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.