By Richard Clarke
It was a night of utter frustration at Emirates Stadium.
Somehow CSKA stayed afloat amid wave after wave of Arsenal attacks to take a priceless point back to Moscow. The home side had poise, precision and punch in their approach play but just could not find a final touch.
Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie both spurned chances that, on another day, they would have scored with ease. On the stroke of half time Tomas Rosicky tapped a shot into the keeper’s arms when faced with an open goal just four yards out. But, just after the break at the other end, Jens Lehmann had to make a crucial scrambling save from Wagner Love.
Arsenal will play much, much worse than this and hammer their opponents. However the floodgates never burst open this evening.
Porto’s win at Hamburg puts them level with Arsenal on seven points in Group G. Both are one point behind leaders CSKA.
After winning their first two games, Wenger’s men looked certainties to qualify. Now they have fight on their hands.
The full backs were the main talking point ahead of the game. Justin Hoyte recovered from the kick in the back that had forced him off early on Saturday and retained his place on the right of the defence. Fit-again Gael Clichy came in at left back for the first time this season outside the Carling Cup. William Gallas joined Kolo Toure in the centre.
Having been so frustrated for such long periods while chasing the game on Saturday against Everton, Arsenal looked to take this encounter by the scruff of the neck in the early stages.
Their start was lively and brisk. In the sixth minute, Fabregas played in Hleb with a lovely pass with the outside of his right foot. The Belarus midfielder advanced, breezed past a couple of challenge and Van Persie hacked a shot over the bar.
Daniel Carvalho floated an effort just over Jens Lehmann’s bar by way of response but, at the other end, Van Persie cracked a thunderbolt effort just wide. It would herald a half of incessant Arsenal pressure.
Midway through the period Hleb broke through on the right but shot straight at Igor Akinfeev. He then set up Henry when perhaps he should have gone for goal again.
Then in the 25th minute, Fabregas exchanged passes with Rosicky and rounded the keeper but he lost his balance at the wrong time and his shot went into the sidenetting with the goal at his mercy.
Arsenal continued to pile forward but, as on Saturday, they were struggling to breakthrough. In the 35th minute Hleb prodded the ball into space and the sliding Van Persie hooked the ball just past the post with the keeper beaten.
CSKA’s problems mounted when Milos Krasic, who celebrated his 22nd birthday today, was forced off. Evgeni Aldonin replaced him.
The substitution was an oasis in a sea of Arsenal pressure. The best chance of the half looked to have come 90 seconds before the interval. Fabregas lofted over an exquisite throughball from the left. Henry raced through but, for once, his toe-poke went wide.
In fact it was not the best chance. It was the second best. In injury time, Henry reached the byline and crossed low pass the keeper at the near post to Rosicky, who was four yards in front of an unguarded goal. All the Czech international had to do was make a solid contact and propel the ball forward. His contact was indeed solid however he sidefooted the ball straight into the keeper’s hands.
It was the ‘piece de resistance’ in a half of missed chances.
Arsenal could do little but more of the same in the second period and, to their credit, they set about the task with gusto. Van Persie flashed a low ball across the area, Henry forced Akinfeev into a routine save.
All the attacking by the home side left them open to a counter-attack and Arsenal were so nearly caught by a classic sucker-punch in the 56th minute. Wagner Love outstripped Gallas and then tricked his way past the French defender on the edge of the area. He poked a shot at Lehmann who, half-stopped it. The keeper just managed to stretch back and gather the ball before it was turned home.
It was a huge let-off but it did not stop the home side steaming forward. A sliding Van Persie just missed Henry’s clipped cross at the far post as Arsenal missed yet another chance. Then, after Hleb made way for Walcott, Toure blasted in a free-kick from distance then Van Persie nodded wide at the far post from Hoyte’s deep cross.
Eight minutes from time Akinfeev pulled off another superb save from Gilberto’s well-placed header. But then Henry nearly turned a corner into his own net at the death.
It was a 0-0 thrashing but, in fact, CSKA had been given a couple of chances to nick all three points.
That would have been a nightmare. As it was this result was simply a deep, deep disappointment.
Referee: Lubos Michel
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