Sheffield United
West Bromwich Albion
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 By Tom Adams

Arsenal will fancy chances vs. CSKA, despite off-field distractions

Sport often exists in splendid isolation from politics but, at times, the two can be fatefully entwined. Such a moment arrived on Friday when Arsenal landed CSKA Moscow in the quarterfinals of the UEFA Europa League.

With the United Kingdom imposing sanctions upon Russia, which it blames for the poisoning of a former spy in Salisbury and, on Friday afternoon, a murder investigation being launched into the death of a Russian man in London, it is fair to say that Arsenal -- and the UK authorities -- might have preferred another opponent for Arsene Wenger's side. 

To draw the two strands further together, following the last time Arsenal and CSKA met in 2006, polonium was discovered at the Emirates Stadium after a suspect in the murder of Alexander Livtinenko attended a Champions League match having met with the former Russian spy earlier on the same day.

As such, next month's tie will not experience a normal build-up. Arsenal have already instructed supporters to bear in mind the official Commonwealth Office advice regarding travel to Russia, which states that "due to heightened political tensions between the UK and Russia, you should be aware of the possibility of anti-British sentiment or harassment at this time." The away match comes in the second leg on April 12.

And yet, while a dispute between states might hang over the tie, the task of the Arsenal team is to filter out such concerns and, analysing this match-up on a football level, there is much to be satisfied with, as regards the draw.

Atletico Madrid are by far the most formidable team left in this competition but Lazio, Marseille and RB Leipzig were also to be avoided. Except for an international incident, the Gunners might have picked CSKA as the best possible draw.

For starters, they are currently only the third best team in Moscow, according to the Russian Premier League table, where they sit in third behind Spartak and Lokomotiv. Which is fitting given that, by the same rationale, Arsenal are only the third best team in London, even if they do possess a more talented squad.

The standard, stereotypical fear when drawing a team from Eastern Europe is that the journey will be perilous, either through prolonged distances or tricky temperatures. But by April the winter chill will have departed Russia and, in any case, CSKA relied on their away form to carry them through the Champions League group stages with one win at home and two -- at Benfica and Basel -- on their travels.

They also took the lead at Old Trafford in their final group game in December before succumbing to a 2-1 defeat; a result that looked respectable at the time but which, in hindsight, seems less noteworthy given the paucity of United's performance against Sevilla this week.

In truth, CSKA's main impact in the Champions League over the past decade has been the transformation of Igor Akinfeev from goalkeeping star to running joke. The Russia international failed to keep a clean sheet for over 11 years and 43 matches until, in November 2017, he denied Benfica in a group-stage game. His previous shutout had come against... Arsenal in 2006.

Arsenal are not immune to following trends themselves -- their successive round-of-16 exits have provided a similarly reliable punchline for many a year in the Champions League -- but the Europa League has been more forgiving.

While drawing CSKA may present a diplomatic challenge, the sporting task awaiting Arsenal is unlikely to be as daunting.

Tom is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport


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