Arsenal and CSKA meet amid backdrop of fear between Britain and Russia

LONDON -- The Russians were meant to arrive at the Clock End of the Emirates, where a dozen police, some on horseback, and three times as many stewards and security guards were waiting behind barriers. Several vanloads of more police idled nearby in the hours before Thursday's opening leg of CSKA Moscow's Europa League quarterfinal at Arsenal.

Only 500 tickets had been allocated to the visitors.

According to stadium staff, exactly 124 of them were taken.

Police on the scene wouldn't confirm how many of their own rank were present; if there wasn't one for every Russian, there was close to it. In isolation, their show of force would have seemed comically out of scale. But football isn't played in isolation anymore. The beautiful game transcends borders. So, too, does fear.

Tensions between England and Russia have been high since former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned on a Salisbury park bench on March 4. A British detective was also sickened by the suspected use of a Novichok nerve agent, leading to the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats by Britain and several allies.

Less than two weeks later, Arsenal were drawn to face CSKA.

Early fears of violence at the match proved unfounded -- Manchester City's visit to Liverpool the previous night was far more calamitous -- but the cascade of recent events still had its obvious, if quieter, effects. It's hard for a war to break out when only one side shows up. (On and off the pitch, it turned out. Arsenal won 4-1.)

The CSKA fans huddled together in a lonely corner of the stadium, surrounded by a buffer of empty red seats. They needed one-third the space. When Aleksandr Golovin scored on a perfect free kick in the first half, the Russian cheering sounded like a distant school had been let out.

Arsenal's bravest few will soon know the feeling.

The club have been assigned 1,000 seats for next Thursday's return leg in Moscow, but it's not clear how many will actually make the trip. As soon as the tie was announced, Arsenal seconded the advice of Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

"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; you're advised to remain vigilant, avoid any protests or demonstrations and avoid commenting publicly on political developments," the statement read in part.

The Russian embassy in London had countered by warning CSKA fans that because of the "anti-Russian campaign being conducted in the UK," they needed to be careful during their visit. They were told not to joke with immigration officials and "to behave yourself with our inherent dignity."

CSKA manager Viktor Goncharenko tried to dispel both tensions and worries during his pre-match news conference, particularly in light of this summer's World Cup. (England will open their tournament against Tunisia in Volgograd on June 18.) "You are welcome to Russia," Goncharenko said. "You can see that it's a very beautiful country -- a very peaceful and safe country."

There were concerns about the safety of traveling football fans long before the current diplomatic crisis. At Euro 2016, Russian ultras wearing gum shields and MMA gloves set upon England supporters during a series of running battles in the old port of Marseilles. The precision of the attacks even in a foreign city left many wondering what might await them on Russian soil.

ESPN FC spoke to dozens of England supporters over the following days in France. Not one said he or she would attend the World Cup. That included one who had been to every World Cup and Euro since 1996; another had marked full attendance for 18 years.

"No chance," he said.

Nearly two years later, those ill feelings have only cemented. After the second phase of World Cup ticket sales, England placed 20th for applications, and the lack of opposition at the Emirates might have further foretold a one-sided summer. Timing and fate have cast Arsenal and CSKA as proxies for their home nations. Football, for both sides, looks at risk of losing out to fear.

In an almost cosmic twist, CSKA last visited Arsenal in Champions League play on Nov. 1, 2006, the day former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London with polonium-210. Minute quantities of the radioactive isotope were later found at the Emirates. One of the chief suspects in the murder, Andrei Lugovoi, had attended the match that night.

Lugovoi is now a Russian MP. Shortly after the Skripals were nearly killed, he scoffed at British suspicions of a purposeful poisoning.

"The English are suffering from phobias," Lugovoi said.

Those 124 cornered Russians, their numbers made even thinner by the end of their lopsided defeat, left the English looking far from alone.