By Josh James at Vasil Levski Stadium
Mesut Ozil scored a sensational late winner as Arsenal came from 2-0 down to beat Ludogorets and progress to the knockout stages of the Champions League. The Gunners had slipped to a two-goal deficit inside the opening quarter of an hour.
A quickfire double from Jonathan Cafu and Claudiu Keseru put the hosts in control, but just five minutes later Granit Xhaka converted from Ozil's centre to reduce the arrears. In a wide open first half, Olivier Giroud headed the equaliser shortly before the interval when he outjumped Milan Borjan in the Ludogorets goal to meet Aaron Ramsey's right-wing cross. The game settled down in the second half, but Ozil had the last say two minutes from time. He beat the offside trap, rounded the keeper, kept his composure to floor the covering defenders then slotted home to seal a superb victory. With Paris Saint-Germain winning in Switzerland, this victory sends Arsenal through the group stage for the 17th consecutive season.
Setting the Scene
Both teams had faced a long trip to get to the game, as Ludogorets' Razgrad home is some 350km from Sofia. But Arsenal made their first ever visit to Bulgaria in good spirits, on the back of a 14-game unbeaten run, which included a 6-0 victory over Ludogorets at Emirates Stadium two weeks ago. With the games coming thick and fast at the moment, it was perhaps no surprise that the manager chose to make five changes to his line up. One of those was enforced – Hector Bellerin picked up a knock in training yesterday, so Carl Jenkinson came in for his first Champions League match since 2013. Giroud was rewarded for his brace against Sunderland with a first starting role of the season – Alexis shifted to the left – while Ramsey also made the starting XI after his impressive cameo on Saturday. Xhaka was selected after completing his domestic ban and, as usual in this competition, David Ospina continued in goal after keeping clean sheets in his last two outings. Giroud's former Tours team-mate Keseru started up front for the hosts, having scored seven goals in his last three games. Arsenal would seal qualification to the knockout stages with a win, as long as Paris Saint-Germain avoided defeat against Basel at the same time. A draw would be enough for the Gunners if PSG won in Switzerland.
The game kicked off with the temperature just a few degrees above freezing, but the sizeable Arsenal contingent were warming the atmosphere inside the Vasil Levski Stadium. The Gunners started confidently. Ramsey tried an ambitious overhead kick which failed to trouble the keeper, before Ozil failed to get enough purchase on a low shot when he was played in. But after a promising opening 10 minutes, Arsenal were undone by a routine set piece. Wanderson sent his delivery to the far post where Cafu arrived to tuck past Ospina. Things went from bad to worse just three minutes later when Cafu turned provider. The Brazilian winger skipped into the box and squared for Keseru to finish from close range. Arsenal needed to respond quickly, and they did just that. Ozil cut the ball back from the byline, Giroud miscued but Xhaka arrived at the right time to plant his shot into the bottom corner. It had been a frenetic opening 20 minutes, but Arsenal now had a foothold at least. Ludogorets were not looking simply to defend their lead, far from it. So with both sides looking for more goals the game was wide open. Ozil had a volley charged down but five minutes from the break Arsenal were level. Ramsey took up possession on the right wing, swung in an inviting cross and Giroud rose to beat Milan Borjan in the air and head home. The Gunners had well and truly swung the momentum back their way as the referee blew up at the end of an eventful first 45 minutes.
The early exchanges of the second-half didn't quite live up to the harum-scarum nature of the opening 45 minutes. Alexis had a free-kick deflected over by the wall, and just after the hour mark Ospina was called into action twice in quick succession to deny Wanderson.
First, he saved low down after a rapid counter attack, then the keeper was quickly off his line to smother after the Brazilian had got behind the Arsenal defence. Alexis couldn't get the ball out of his feet quickly enough when picked out in the box by a smart Xhaka pass as both sides pressed for a winner. It came just two minutes from time. Ozil was sent through by a long ball over the top, but the German still had plenty to do. He lifted the ball over the advancing keeper, dummied past a defender, then tucked home to send the Arsenal fans into raptures.Qualification assured, next up it's the north London derby on Sunday.
Referee: Bas Nijhuis
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