Arsenal 4 PSV 0 – Blissful, rainsoaked return to Champions League for Gunners after long six-year wait. by Joel
Arsenal fans entered the Emirates Stadium yesterday evening, full of irrepressible excitement ahead of their long-awaited Champions League return after a six-year exile. The incessant rainfall on this special night in North London might even have refreshed the bodies and souls of a fanbase marked by the unpleasant aroma of Europa League football for just over half a decade.
Picture Andy Dufresne at the iconic climax of the film Shawshank Redemption: On his knees, deliriously overjoyed, revelling in the rain after arduously traversing through a sewer drain to escape the prison behind him.
Arsenal fans would argue they have dredged through sewers of their own recently in the Europa League. The unceremonious semi-final exit to Atletico Madrid in 2018. The ignominy of Baku against Chelsea in 2019. Last-gasp heartbreak in 2020 against Olympiakos. The maddening frustration against Unai Emery’s Villareal in 2021. The shock sucker-punch from Sporting back in March.
Arsenal had made it to the other side. Champions League football was finally theirs again, and as per the pre-match words of Mikel Arteta, the mastermind behind the club’s return among Europe’s elite, it was time to make the most of it.
When that cherished Champions League anthem rang out from the speakers, a lot of hearty cheers rose up from the crowd, but once it finished, the noise had evolved into a deafening roar. From the moment Gabriel Jesus seared forward to hunt down the ball and block the clearance of a PSV defender in the very first minute, the tone was set for a full throttle first-half from the Gunners.
With just eight minutes gone, the home side surged into an early lead, and how apt it was that Bukayo Saka opened the scoring. The 22-year-old has been pivotal in Arsenal’s re-ascent as a premier club since Arteta’s arrival back in late 2019, and he pounced on a rebound from Martin Odegaard’s shot to get his first Champions League goal on his full debut in the competition.
As is expected by this point, Saka took to this new grand stage like a duck to water, but much like him, every player in red and white was just as impressive from front to back. William Saliba’s blend of elegance and effectiveness was on full display in defence and on the ball. Declan Rice anchored the midfield with the poise and assuredness of someone far more experienced than a Champions League novice. And Leandro Trossard’s fleet footwork and clever selection of passes provided a distinct threat on the left-hand side of attack.
The Belgian proceeded to double Arsenal’s lead in the 20th minute after a quick breakaway led to Saka setting up Trossard on the edge of the box, who stroked a low curled shot into the net with his right foot, his second accomplished finish in the space of four days. However, for all of Trossard and Saka’s tremendous work in the first half, Gabriel Jesus’ performance in particular deserved special praise.
Following Arsenal’s 1-0 victory over Everton on Sunday, Arteta lavished high praise upon the Brazilian forward, stating how the 26-year-old was the most decorated player in the Arsenal dressing room, including himself in that statement, and was unlucky not to have started at Goodison Park.
Yet, on this night, Jesus played with the panache that matched his distinguished trophy cabinet. His vigour when pressing PSV players who had possession was commendable, but the Brazilian’s scintillating ability on the ball was a joy to behold, sprinkling the game with some audacious pieces of skill.
First, there was a slick scoop turn inside the box that left his opponent for dead before he fired the ball at PSV keeper Benitez’s legs. Then, there was a deft stepover to work some space in the box before unleashing a high shot that was well-saved. Thankfully, Jesus was not to be denied his spoils, and in the 38th minute, Trossard’s cross across the box was superbly cushioned by the Arsenal no. 9 before his rasping shot flew past Benitez to provide him with his goal, and put the game beyond PSV.
In truth, every Arsenal player looked like they were having fun in that first half. Which player wouldn’t want to be part of it? Just ask Ian Wright.
On the other hand, it might not be best to ask Aaron Ramsdale right now, who was on the Gunners’ bench for the second straight game, with David Raya getting the nod to make his full home debut for the club. The Spaniard put in a very solid showing, with near-faultless distribution from his hands and feet, and a very strong aerial command of his penalty area.
When PSV mounted their attacks, this was often the sequence: The ball reached the Arsenal box. A rapid blur of fluorescent green followed, and then the danger was over. That rapid blur? Raya swiftly arriving to claim a cross or drop down to make a routine save.
Ramsdale appears to have his work cut out to regain his momentum, but perhaps he should take heart from Gabriel Magalhaes at centre-back for Arsenal. The Brazilian was inexplicably dropped for the Gunners’ first three league games this season, but has been imperious since his return into the starting line-up, as was the case yesterday.
The 25-year-old was crucial in the second half for Arsenal, with his excellent aerial ability, and brilliant reading of the game to make vital interceptions and clearances when needed. Up close, it is abundantly clear how much of a leader Gabriel is at the back and how much his presence galvanises everyone else around him.
With the game effectively wrapped up by half-time, Arteta had the luxury of withdrawing Oleksandr Zinchenko, Trossard, Saka, Jesus and Rice, ahead of Sunday’s huge North London derby. However, there was still enough time for Emile Smith Rowe to make his first appearance of the season in the 69th minute, greeted by a rousing reception from the Arsenal fans.
And they soon would be cheering not long afterwards when Martin Odegaard capped off a wonderful evening by drilling a low strike with laser-pointed accuracy from over 20 yards into the bottom right-hand corner for Arsenal’s fourth. The Norwegian was exemplary, as always on the night, with the club captain gaining the player of the match, come the final whistle.
As the evening drew to a close, the rain lashed down in North London, and the customary ‘waterfall’ in the middle of the East Stand had returned for the first time since, ironically, Arsenal’s last European match, their Europa League penalty shootout defeat to Sporting CP in March.
In some way, the club has desperately needed to endure a torrential downpour from top to bottom, to wash away the negativity and toxicity from the past six years outside the Champions League and leave space for something new to blossom.
And yesterday saw the product of the new seeds sown at the Emirates from a team who all hadn’t kicked a ball for Arsenal in the Champions League before last night. This group is certainly starting to flourish as genuine European contenders. Could they eventually grow into European champions together? Based on the exponential rate of growth Arteta has underseen so far in his tenure, you couldn’t rule it out.
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