TORONO — Arsenal’s excitement about their first Champions League appearance in six years was so great that they included the competition’s anthem’s lyrics in the matchday program.
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 the 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 could have been forgiven for approaching this prestigious event a little 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 excited, 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 current level, we must now generate what we need.
“I believe we handled that intensity well.
Speaking of pleasure, We must compete at this level, of course, but you also need to savor these moments because, in the end, that’s what will likely be remembered.”
PSV’s defense, 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.
Due to their inability to convert their supremacy to the scoreline, games have been closer than Arteta would have wanted.
However, they jumped out to a 3-0 lead in just 38 minutes thanks to goals from Bukayo Saka, Leandro Trossard, and Gabriel Jesus. PSV’s lack of response to Arsenal’s arsenal allowed Arteta to go into autopilot mode in the second half and make a number of adjustments with Sunday’s north London derby in mind, including rests for Jesus, Saka, and Declan Rice, the team’s main midfield player.
After 70 minutes, Martin Ødegaard scored his fourth goal by taking advantage of additional leeway in risky areas and finishing with a shot from the edge of the box in a technique that is quickly becoming his signature.
Since these two teams faced each other in the Europa League group stage of the previous season, PSV provides an indicator of Arsenal’s recent progress. The Eredivisie team won the rematch 2-0 after losing by just one goal in north London in October of last year.
Since then, Arsenal has made significant investments. Rice and Kai Havertz, who both began their careers here, joined in the summer, while Trossard arrived in January. The outcome was a commanding victory that provides a strong base upon which they may construct their Group B challenge.
David Raya’s goal choice would have generated more conversation on a different evening. This season, Arteta has made much of switching up his goalkeeper lineups, but Raya’s start here for the second straight game is concerning for Aaron Ramsdale.
Here, any thought that Ramsdale might be Arsenal’s cup competition keeper was quickly dashed. The hierarchy will be cemented if Raya starts at Tottenham Hotspur and Ramsdale is substituted for the EFL Cup match at Brentford on Wednesday.
Arsenal signed Raya for 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 felt emotional.
Jesus immediately returned the ball to Raya, who tried to open an Arsenal attack, allowing the backline to start much further up the field. Having played 90 minutes in one of his more encouraging performances while wearing a Gunners shirt, midfielder Havertz had fewer 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 players used to playing Liverpool at Anfield, only for him to lose. Partly as a 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.