LONDON — Three quick thoughts from a surreal Thursday night in North London as Arsenal complete a 3-1 win over Cologne in Europa League action.
1. Arsenal eventually find winning inspiration
It was a long night for Arsenal but one that may give great heart to manager Arsene Wenger. After kickoff was delayed by an hour following safety concerns caused by the sheer volume of travelling Cologne fans, Wenger’s team were almost as late in finding their step. But Alexis Sanchez’s first goal of the season was followed by Hector Bellerin’s 81st-minute strike, and Arsenal eventually found comfort against an opponent that had previously caused them significant troubles.
Sanchez’s 67th-minute goal — a dipping, swerving thunderbolt — gave Arsenal a 2-1 lead and offered a telling reminder why Wenger wanted to keep the forward this summer.
Cologne seized on the rowdy atmosphere to take a ninth-minute lead after a moment of high farce. Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina tore out of his penalty area to attack a loose hack from Matthias Lehmann. The clearance was poor and bounced off Leonardo Bittencourt’s shins to the feet of Jhon Cordoba. The Colombia striker showed impressive composure and presence of mind to send the ball straight back past his compatriot and into the goal.
A moment of similar inspiration from half-time substitute Sead Kolasinac drew Arsenal level four minutes after the Bosnia defender came on. After Arsenal’s Theo Walcott was robbed of the ball, Kolasinac crashed a volley past Cologne goalkeeper Timo Horn.
Wenger’s team selection for Arsenal’s first outing in Europe’s second-tier competition since losing the 2000 UEFA Cup final to Galatasaray in Copenhagen suggested where his priorities lie. Only Sanchez, Nacho Monreal and Bellerin are true first-choice players. Wenger does not yet seem convinced to follow United manager Jose Mourinho’s lead and try to win the Europa League in order to guarantee a return to the Champions League.
The lineup was not far short of the type of team Wenger selects for the League Cup’s early rounds. Ashley Maitland-Niles, just 20, was tried at left wing-back until Kolasinac came on. As often happens with experimental lineups, Arsenal struggled for fluency, and for much of the first half it looked as if Wenger and his players had seriously underestimated Cologne. Though the visitors are currently bottom of the Bundesliga, they’d clearly saved up their energies for this night, the club’s first match in European competition since 1992.
As Cologne sat back on their early lead and defended in numbers, Olivier Giroud and Walcott failed to trouble Horn with weak, unconvincing efforts. Walcott collected offside decisions, while Giroud had severe difficulty in finding a way past a tough, physical set of Cologne defenders.
There were also a couple of scares at the back during that first half, with Cordoba’s adept holdup play bringing teammates into play on the counterattack. The interval brought a rethink from Wenger as he withdrew Rob Holding to bring on Kolasinac and changed to a defensive quartet. It brought near-instant dividends, with the equaliser reviving Arsenal’s previously flagging spirit.
Right after Jack Wilshere entered as a substitute (for Alex Iwobi), playing his first match at the Emirates since May 2016, Sanchez’s superb strike lifted a night that might have embraced disaster.
2. Sanchez back in business?
Thursday night was Sanchez’s first home start of the season after he missed time with an abdominal strain. After the somewhat mixed reception he received as a second-half substitute in Saturday’s 3-0 victory over Bournemouth, the Cologne fan-driven cauldron of noise that filled the night air made it difficult to discern how Arsenal fans felt about him here.
Until that goal, however, it did appear that Sanchez was short of his incendiary, destructive best. He still looked to be wearing the effects of a disrupted preseason, and while he remained willing, his touch was often heavy. On such form, it seemed that had Manchester City been able to sign him, they would probably have had to wait a while to get Sanchez in full effect.
At his best, the Chile international operates as a one-man attack, but playing from the left for much of the first half and coming up against heavy traffic, he was far more static than his usual full flow. Only after Kolasinac’s arrival shored up the left flank, allowing Sanchez greater room to roam, did he begin to strut with his previous confidence. Once his goal flew in, he was back to the player of the last two seasons, dictating play and encouraging his colleagues.
Wenger will also be glad for the vital game time his star player received ahead of Sunday’s daunting trip to Chelsea. Though it may take longer than that for his optimum sharpness to return, his goal and a performance that improved as the night drew on were highly positive notes in his comeback trail.
3. Cologne fans raise the roof
It was always expected that Cologne fans would make their presence felt in North London, but it seemed the numbers they were prepared to travel in had been seriously miscalculated. After an afternoon spent dominating the pubs of central London, an estimated 20,000 had marched on the Emirates, and from there, the problems soon began.
It was hard to ignore the number of German fans in home sections of the ground. Many of them wore Arsenal merchandise, but their box-fresh shirts and scarves proved not much of a disguise; whenever the Cologne fans sang in the away corner, smatterings of fans in the other stands merrily bounced to the same tunes.
While Arsenal are in the Europa League seemingly against their will, this was a once-in-a-generation night for Cologne fans; that last appearance in European football way back in 1992 came in the first round of the old UEFA Cup. During the uncertainty that followed the announcement of an hour delay, it briefly seemed their wait might go on longer as a postponement was feared.
Eventually, the show did go on, and the Cologne fans’ noise made the night a special one that will be remembered for its volume. The celebrations were earsplitting when Cordoba’s strike drifted into the net that Ospina had left vacant.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.