Arsenal's Champions League Return Showcases Their Belonging
Arsenal's excitement about their first Champions League involvement in six years was so great that they included the competition's anthem's lyrics in the matchday programme. When "Zadok The Priest" finally started, not many people joined in the song's chorus, but there was a noticeable roar as the first few notes echoed through a rain-soaked Emirates Stadium, providing a therapeutic outlet for the hurt caused by their protracted absence from the top club circuit in Europe.
With a confidence usually associated with seasoned Champions League players, the Gunners easily defeated PSV Eindhoven 4-0 on Wednesday. They were determined to grab their chance back in the big time, and they did not let it down. But none of the starting lineup from their last game, a 5-1 home loss to Bayern Munich in March 2017, remains with the team.
Since Mikel Arteta is a rookie in the Champions League and the only remaining member of the squad from that night is midfielder Mohamed Elneny, the home team might have been forgiven for approaching this prestigious event a bit cautiously. Despite the energy pumping through their veins, none was visible.
In his press conference following the game, Arteta remarked, "It was great to see the atmosphere and the Champions League music." Before it, everyone started to become a little emotional. Yes, I was [feeling] things. I was giddy with anticipation. I was quite delighted, but I also wanted to maintain control and not show it too much.
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"The trip began last year when we, as a club, acquired the opportunity to participate in this competition. In order to maintain our present level, we must now generate what we must.
"I believe we handled that intensity and feeling well. Speaking about the pleasure. We must compete at this level, of course, but you also need to savour these moments because, in the end, that's what will likely be remembered."
PSV's defence, it must be admitted, was very Europa League, but Arsenal displayed the kind of merciless efficiency in front of goal that Arteta has lamented throughout the team's Premier League season thus far.
They've struggled to convert their supremacy to the scoreboard, which has made games closer than Arteta would have wanted. However, after only 38 minutes, they jumped out to a 3-0 lead thanks to goals from Bukayo Saka, Leandro Trossard, and Gabriel Jesus. PSV was unable to match Arsenal's arsenal of weapons, which allowed Arteta to go into autopilot in the second half and make a number of changes with Sunday's north London derby in mind, including a rest for Declan Rice, Jesus, and Saka, the team's main midfield player. Martin Ødegaard added a fourth goal on 70 minutes, using even more freedom in risky situations to drill home from the edge of the box in a style that is quickly becoming his signature.
The fact that PSV and Arsenal faced each other in the Europa League group stage the previous season makes them a good gauge of Arsenal's recent development. In October of last year, the Eredivisie team defeated the opposition 2-0 in the rematch after losing by just one goal in north London.
Subsequently, Arsenal has made significant investments, bringing in Trossard in January and Rice and Kai Havertz (who both began their careers here) in the summer. In the end, they emerged victorious and set a strong basis for their Group B campaign.
If it had been a another night, David Raya's goal pick would have generated more conversation. Although Arteta has made much of switching up his goalkeeping lineups this season, Aaron Ramsdale should be concerned that Raya started this game for the second straight time.
Here, Ramsdale quickly eliminated any possibility that he may be Arsenal's cup tournament goalie. There will be no doubt about the hierarchy if Raya starts against Tottenham Hotspur and Ramsdale is substituted for next Wednesday's EFL Cup match at Brentford.
Arsenal signed Raya on a season-long loan from Brentford, with the option to make the transfer permanent, which they will almost definitely exercise, mostly because of Raya's footwork abilities. In this environment, the opening action of the game seemed emotional.
Jesus immediately returned the ball to Raya, who tried to open an Arsenal assault, allowing the backline to start much higher up the pitch. Having played 90 minutes in one of his more encouraging performances while wearing an Arsenal shirt, midfielder Havertz had less touches than Raya in the end (58).
Reluctant to engage in any dialogue on the choice, Arteta derived his explanation from "a belief that I had in the team I wanted to play against the expected opponent -- not only that, I made the other changes for the same reason."
Some people made light of Arteta for once performing "You'll Never Walk Alone" in the middle of training to get his team used to playing Liverpool at Anfield, only for him to lose. Partly in joke, Jesus claims that a few players on the team decided to play the Champions League hymn in the gym earlier this week.
Laughing or not, Arsenal looked like they belonged this time.