This was one of those occasions when what was ostensibly a risky selection ended up feeling like a masterstroke. Arsène Wenger had been at pains to stress Arsenal had to take the initiative in their Champions League group after last season’s shoddy opening, so his decision to emulate the choice of a year ago and relegate Petr Cech to the substitutes’ bench and play David Ospina felt unnecessary, even perplexing.
Yet as a succession of Paris Saint-Germain attacks broke on the Arsenal goalkeeper they were either choked, blocked or parried to safety and the visitors’ conviction grew. Edinson Cavani, a first-minute scorer, will be haunted by the memory of Ospina in his turquoise kit and luminous gloves. The striker may never recover his reputation from the flurry of misses and, when Alexis Sánchez fired home the equaliser late on, Arsenal had their real reward.
The loss of Olivier Giroud after a spat with Marco Verratti in stoppage time – the Italian was shown his second yellow card – provided a sting in the tail, but this ended up a satisfying night’s work.
It had not been outlandish to consider the trickiest trip of the group an opportunity for Arsenal to seize the initiative. PSG have laboured over recent weeks, the players apparently unconvinced by Unai Emery’s approach and the team diminished by the departure of David Luiz and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. They have been hampered by niggling injuries and have dropped points owing to sloppy defending that was rare last season. The announcement of the PSG’s manager’s name before the kick-off provoked grumbling among the fans. There was tension that Arsenal could aspire to exploit.
All of which made their poor start all the more exasperating. Where Wenger must have hoped to play on local anxiety, all it took to prise his side apart was Verratti’s slipped pass to the right flank and Serge Aurier’s rampaging sprint down the wing. The right-back had been one of Emery’s riskier selections given injury problems but there was a majesty to his cross on the run. Shkodran Mustafi was slightly off the pace in the centre, allowing Cavani to plant a firm header into the corner of the net after 42 seconds.
Mustafi immediately complained there was another ball on the pitch, a legacy of a throw-in, but it was on the far side and hardly interfering with play. That did not excuse the slackness of the marking.
Cavani, a player who shivered in the shadow of Ibrahimovic for so long, wheeled away in wild celebration with his team-mates daring to believe this was the Uruguayan’s breakthrough moment in the PSG shirt. By the interval those hopes had been tempered somewhat by a pair of glaring misses, the first particularly gruesome after Nacho Monreal had inadvertently poked a Verratti through-ball away from Laurent Koscielny and into the striker’s path. He rounded David Ospina but, from 18 yards out, could only skewer his shot into the side-netting.
The concern was all Arsenal’s. It was hard not to wonder if Wenger’s selection had not passed up an initiative. His faith in Ospina at Petr Cech’s expense looked odd, the Colombian having begun the first two group games last season, matches surrendered to Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiakos. “I have two world-class goalkeepers,” he said pre-match.
Ospina was not at fault for the opening goal. The absence of the club’s principal summer signing, Granit Xhaka, in midfield felt just as baffling for all Wenger insisted his lineup was “not a massive surprise”.
Watching Adrien Rabiot and Grzegorz Krychowiak dominate in the centre cast doubt on that assertion and, while Alex Iwobi, Monreal and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain often made progress down the flanks, there was no one for them to find in the centre. The 2,000 visiting fans were bellowing for Giroud but had to wait until 27 minutes from time before he was summoned from the bench to add some clout. Aside from inducing a few jitters at set pieces, Arsenal had been too powder puff for comfort.
They had attempted to up the urgency after the break, squeezing out more combination plays in midfield with Marquinhos doing well to thwart Iwobi, but the better opportunities were still PSG’s on the counterattack. Aurier, running riot down his flank, crossed for Blaise Matuidi only for the midfielder to poke his effort over the bar. Angel Di María, too, outpaced the Arsenal backline but a heavy touch denied him a shooting chance.
Ospina mustered saves that proved his pedigree and with each missed opportunity, Arsenal’s belief that they could pluck unlikely reward of their own from the contest grew.
Arsenal’s opportunity was chiselled out 12 minutes from time. Mesut Özil’s first contribution of note presented Iwobi with a shooting chance which Alphonse Areola did well to block. Yet the ball flew to Sánchez, alone near the penalty spot, to thump in the equaliser.