SOFIA, Bulgaria, Nov 1- On their first visit to a place where a shake of the head means yes, perhaps Arsenal can be forgiven for the outbreak of confusion which produced an unexpected European thriller.
Arsene Wenger’s team fired six past Ludogorets without reply in London just two weeks ago and yet found themselves two goals down within a quarter of an hour on a bitterly cold night in the Bulgarian capital.
Without his first-choice full-backs, Wenger watched the sort of defensive chaos descend which he must have dared to think had been eradicated by some solid summer signings.
As they wobbled, it sounded a warning that such deficiencies and mental fragilities still lurk.
Fortunately for the Frenchman, his team remain ever potent in attack and Ludogorets proved again to have their own inherent problems at the back.
Arsenal were level before half time through goals from Granit Xhaka and Olivier Giroud and just when they thought they would drop two costly points, up popped Mesut Ozil with one of the most beautiful goals you will ever see.
Only two minutes remained when Ozil was released by a pass from Mohamed Elneny, delicately lifted the ball over the goalkeeper, collected it on the other side, and dummied and shimmied his way past a couple of defenders before rolling it into an empty net.
Victory puts them on top of Group A and the manner of Ozil’s winner keeps spirits high ahead of the derby against Tottenham on Sunday.
Arsenal actually opened well, taking command of the possession as the Bulgarian champions retreated to defend on the edge of their penalty box.
Aaron Ramsey was off target with an overhead kick and Ozil was denied by goalkeeper Milan Borjan, one of two changes to the team which conceded six at the Emirates Stadium a fortnight ago.
Borjan was in for Vladislav Stoyanov who has not played since his horror show in North London.
Perhaps it all seemed a little too comfortable, because as soon as they were asked to defend, they went behind.
Wanderson delivered a long, deep free-kick from wide on the Ludogorets right which reached Jonathan Cafu, who escaped Shkodran Mustafi to tap it past David Ospina from close range.
The home crowd stirred. They arrived in good numbers, despite the tie being held a six-hour drive from Razgrad, where the team are based.
But they did not arrive in great expectation.
Yet within three minutes they saw the lead doubled. Again, the resistance of Arsenal was feeble as Wanderson fired a long pass out to the right and Cafu skipped past Kieran Gibbs.
His near-post cross was converted by Claudiu Keseru and this goal was greeted with a greater roar, as if those braving Sofia’s November chill might be about to witness one of the great nights.
Ludogorets, with a strong Brazilian contingent, were quick and nimble and had been lively going forward at the Emirates.
It was at the back where they were not up to scratch and reality levels were reset when Xhaka arrived in a deserted penalty area to pull a goal back for the visitors.
Ozil created the chance with a run down the left and fine low cross, dug out from tight on the touchline.
Giroud was unable to gather it as he sped towards the near post but it rolled invitingly to Xhaka, who tucked a left-footer into the bottom corner from somewhere near the penalty spot.
All this within the opening 20 minutes. Ludogorets set about defending their lead and just as they hoped to reach half time, Giroud wiped it out.
Ramsey angled the ball in from the right and Giroud beat ‘keeper Borjan, who dashed six yards from his goal and made it easy for the Arsenal striker to glance a header past him.
Wenger stalked down the tunnel towards the dressing room with a stern expression on his face. His mood will not have been improved by some of the hefty challenges meted out on his players.
Gibbs was smashed by a tackle from Cosmin Moti so late that the referee had every right to miss it, which he did.
Alexis Sanchez, quiet by his usual standards and with shirt sleeves pulled over his hands, grew increasingly frustrated by a procession of tackles which arrived just as the ball was moving on.
Francis Coquelin was booked for dissent. Arsenal were in control but the third was proving elusive and they almost conceded to a lightning fast counter-attack.
Ospina dropped sharply to his left to thwart Wanderson and needed to be alert moments later as the same player darted on to a long pass from Marcelinho.
Arsenal pressed forward in search of the winner they felt they would require to stay in control of Group A and Ludogorets became more dangerous on the counter-attack.
Xhaka split the defence with a pass to Sanchez but the Chilean’s touch let him down for once.
Wenger sent on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as the clock ticked down. Off came Ramsey. Oxlade-Chamberlain slide one chance wide and the home crowd were preparing to celebrate when Ozil struck.
They did not see one of the great nights in Bulgarian football, but they did see a winning goal they will not forget in a hurry.
-By Daily Mail–