Arsenal defeated Basel 4-1 to win Group A this past Tuesday to avoid a hot date with Barcelona or Bayern Munich.
Lucas Perez led the way with a hat trick.
The Guardians Dominic Fifield wrote: This was one of those rare, if precious, occasions when everything came together beautifully. Arsenal would have expected to dazzle out on the turf, where the effervescence of their attacking play parted even the freezing fog. However, even in leaving Basel’s players utterly dizzied and deflated, it still took something just as exceptional across the border in France for this to end as the perfect night.
The true surprise was reserved for the Parc des Princes, where Ludogorets Razgrad, who were supposed to be this group’s whipping boys, twice led Paris Saint-Germain and ultimately secured the point that stripped their hosts of the initiative. While the whistles shrilled in the French capital, Arsène Wenger could delight in Lucas Pérez’s first hat-trick as an Arsenal player and offer a thumbs up to his allies up in the stand. Monday’s draw in Nyon could still pair his team with daunting opponents. Bayern Munich and, potentially, Real Madrid could lie in wait but, for only the second time in seven years, the Premier League club have won their group and have avoided any of four or five particularly imposing rivals in the process.
Given how everything clicked here, they are more likely to receive a bye if their good fortune persists. Wenger’s assessment of this as a “good, a positive night” underplayed the reality. His team selection, which had initially appeared risky, paid off to spectacular effect, with Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil – starters when this might otherwise have appeared an apt opportunity to offer either or both a rest – were heavily involved in all four of Arsenal’s goals. Pérez was the principal beneficiary, all those niggling injuries apparently behind him as he revelled against dithering opponents, and ended looking far more like a £17.1m striker than he has in any of his previous appearances for the club.
Yet the whole side excelled. Some of their football was exquisite, all subtle if constant movement and accurate delivery. Better teams than Basel would have been swept aside but the Swiss club put up no resistance whatsoever.
They should have taken note of the warm-up drill played out between Özil and Sánchez near the halfway line half an hour before kick-off as the pair pummelled passes at each other, delighting in their ability to cushion the most ferociously struck effort on their instep or lay them off first time to an admiring Shkodran Mustafi. It was clear they were in the mood – and just as obvious from the outset that the home side never stood a chance of containing them.
The locals ended up admiring everything Arsenal conjured while their own players wilted at the breathless nature of the approach play. Éder Balanta had been tormented back at the Emirates in September but will presumably be waking in a cold sweat at the thought of Sánchez gliding at him with menace for some time to come. Özil’s contribution was just as incisive, his gathering from the Chilean’s lofted pass and first-time reverse pass across the six-yard box for Alex Iwobi to tap in the fourth summing up the majesty of it all. When he wanted to turn it on, he simply flipped the switch.
Balanta and Adama Traoré, not for the first time, were left disorientated and horribly off the pace. There was no one near Iwobi as he converted beyond a helpless Tomas Vaclik.
In truth, that merely maintained a theme. Pérez had revelled most up to then, a player in the right place at the right time to convert his team-mates’ rat-a-tat exchanges. There was a beauty, eight minutes in, to Sánchez’s pass, flighted over Marek Suchy, which was collected by Kieran Gibbs on the gallop. He slipped his centre across the goalmouth, with Vaclik stranded at his near post and Balanta air-kicking at the loose ball, then slipping over. As the Colombian struggled to regain his feet, Pérez took his time to collect on his left foot before tapping in.
Traoré and Michael Lang had been just as culpable for granting Sánchez and Gibbs the space in which to revel but resistance was probably futile.
There were in excess of 30 untroubled passes pinged between Arsenal players to take them to the half-time whistle – and they had been just as slick in the buildup to their second. Gibbs and Iwobi, then Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, and finally Özil and Sánchez had all enjoyed time on the ball unchallenged before the German slid a diagonal pass into the area. Taulant Xhaka failed to intercept, with Vaclik pushing out Gibbs’s shot and Pérez slamming in the rebound.
This team’s second Champions League hat-trick of the term was secured just after the interval as Suchy’s attempt to find Geoffroy Serey Die was thwarted by Gibbs’s sharp interception. The left-back, outstanding all night, belted a pass at Sánchez who flicked the ball infield with his heel – as he had so matter-of-factly back in that warm-up – into the space between Balanta and Traoré. There darted the Spaniard Pérez to plant a shot towards the far corner, which Vaclik should have kept out. It summed up Basel’s night that, instead, it flew in.
Seydou Doumbia’s riposte mattered little in what time remained, with focus turning increasingly to events in Paris. Wenger will have afforded himself a little punch of the air in delight when Wanderson thrust Ludogorets back ahead and the only anxiety of the evening was endured in what stoppage time remained after Ángel Di Maria’s late equaliser. But this was a saunter. The hope is, on Monday, the draw is just as kind.