IF the backdrop to Arsenal’s Europa League debut was unprecedented chaos, there was a very familiar scene out on the pitch.
The recurring sight of Alexis Sanchez digging Arsene Wenger out of a bloody great hole.
Sanchez had suffered isolated boos when arriving as a sub in Saturday’s win over Bournemouth, having clearly wanted to leave for Manchester City on deadline day.
But the Chilean was granted a hero’s reception when he conjured a wonderful solo goal to spare Arsenal from embarrassment against the Bundesliga’s bottom team.
A mass invasion of Cologne fans made Arsenal’s introduction to Thursday-night football memorable for all the wrong reasons – as they ended a run of 19 consecutive seasons of Champions League football amid confusion and rancour.
But despite a nightmare start, at least this was nothing like their previous European excursion – the 10-2 aggregate defeat by German champions Bayern Munich.
Kick-off had been delayed by an hour until 9.05pm, with segregation inside the ground clearly compromised by an influx of around 20,000 Cologne fans, many of whom had purchased tickets in the home section.
So an early Cologne goal was not just being dreaded by Wenger but also by police, stewards, club and UEFA officials who had decided that the match should go ahead.
But this being Arsenal, an early Cologne goal was exactly what they got.
After just nine minutes, Jhon Cordoba spotted David Ospina way off his line and chipped the Colombian from fully 40 yards.
There were plenty of Cologne fans celebrating outside of the official away section and the German-dominated areas surrounding it.
But despite isolated pockets of anger at the infiltrators from Arsenal fans, the situation was not as bad as might have been feared with little in the way of violent exchanges.
The atmosphere from the Cologne fans, who determined to take over large sections of London to mark their club’s first foray into European competition in a quarter of a century, was vibrant and this felt like an away fixture for the Gunners.
Wenger had made nine changes to the side which defeated Bournemouth but with the exception of youngster Ainsley Maitland-Niles this was an experienced line-up.
One Sanchez centre picked out Olivier Giroud but the Frenchman headed wide – and the Arsenal fans only really found their voices to boo their side off at half-time.
Wenger sent on Sead Kolasinac for Rob Holding at half-time and within four minutes the Bosnian sub had equalised.
Mohamed Elneny lofted a pass to release Theo Walcott, who miscontrolled it and sent a deflected pass back to Kolasinac, who volleyed home from an angle.
Maitland-Niles then came close, bursting between two defenders only to be robbed by keeper Timo Horn when it looked as though he would round him.
Then with Jack Wilshere about to emerge from the bench for his first Arsenal appearance in 13 months, Sanchez struck the decisive blow.
The Chilean cut in from the left, drifted past two defenders and curled a beauty inside the far post.
Nine minutes from time, when Walcott’s shot was pushed out by Horn, Hector Bellerin tucked in the rebound to seal victory.
The inquests will be about crowd chaos and ticketing disasters – but at least Wenger avoided another footballing post-mortem, thanks to Sanchez.
WHAT THEY SAID:
Arsenal goalscorer Hector Bellerin: “We think we’re one of the best in the competition so we had to show that on the pitch.
“The tactics worked for us by the end. I’m very happy for the victory.
“With our nutrition we were ready to play at 8pm. These things happen sometimes but we have to be ready as players.
“Today the win gave us a boost. We’re going to train hard and be ready for Chelsea.”
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger: “We had a slow start and there was an accidental goal. After that, it was important not to concede and panic and put more pace into our game. From then we controlled the game and won convincingly in the end.
“I think Sanchez is still running after his best form. He is a fantastic football player but physically he has just come back. But he has it in his locker to do something special, which he did.
“We want to do well in all the best competitions and I had an experienced team today, even though I made nine changes. They are all top-class players. There is no hierarchy in the squad.”
DREAM TEAM RATINGS:
Arsenal: Ospina 6, Holding 6 (Kolasinac 7), Mertesacker 7 , Monreal 6, Bellerin 8, Elneny 7, Iwobi 6 (Wilshere 6), Maitland-Niles 6, Walcott 6 (Nelson 6), Giroud 7, Sanchez 8
Subs not used: Mustafi, Reine-Adelaide, Akpom, Macey
Goals: Kolasinac 49’, Sanchez 67’, Bellerin 81’
Star Man: Hector Bellerin