Ed’s note - My thanks to occasional Gooner contributor Saul Lipetz for covering for me to write the piece on last night’s game. Normal service will be resumed when Arsenal travel to Wolves, but in the meantime, enjoy some different perspectives on the matches.
Would we take a 3-1 defeat before kick-off? There was some consensus in advance that we would rip the arm off the football God who would offer us a comparable deal. Even if such a pitiful Faustian pact would merely confirm our neurosis, not to say psychosis, away from home.
A promising start that saw us rocking back a vaunted Napoli side on their heels for 15 minutes seemed to fizzle somewhat. Napoli had some excellent chances and it seemed that we might have missed the opportunity to knock any prospect of an Italian comeback on its head. Were we about to contrive a way to Arsenal this up again?
Then came Lacazette, beautiful Lacazette. Aaron Ramsey, our untouchable trump card, tragically and incompetently lost to Juve for reasons that it have become tedious to bemoan, was already lost to a hamstring injury that – please! – will not signal his final act in a series of frequently unacknowledged quasi-heroic efforts for the club. Surely we were too far out here. What was our plan for this free kick?
Our man of the season alongside Aubameyang and Rambo on his wonderful, selfless home straight proved me and my fellow doubter, quoted (in quavering tones) in the above headline, comprehensively wrong, with his brutal, glorious, unmerciful shot into the top corner from an implausible position. Once we managed to hold our improbable clean sheet to half-time (with some comfort, it must be said), we were in uncharted territory.
Have we turned a corner here? Memories resurfaced of the last time we were defending a 2-0 home lead in a European tie against Italian opposition against Patrick Vieira's Juventus in 2006. Then, it seemed, this was too easy. But it didn’t feel like a surprise.
This time, we were firmly back in the camp of ‘if anyone can f*** this up away from home, we can’. Suddenly seemingly unbeatable at home, for all Unai Emery's tactical flexibility we continue to play like donkeys away from home, unfailingly so, to the extent that an almost unprecedented-seeming clean sheet and rare away victory at ten-man Watford felt like a fortunate near-humiliation.
Is Europe different? Frankly, who cares? The threat of the recently so fearsome Napoli, with their dangerous attack around the diminutive but scary Insigne, Milik and Fabian, faded away. The idea that ‘we're not even going to concede here’ might seem comically naive where we're concerned. Here suddenly it became not only a reality, but a realistic prospect, not a blindly optimistic one. The highest compliment for a team seemingly so psychologically inadequate away from home, for all its supreme and in part so expensively assembled array of talent – the ultimate accolade for a side that has seemed invariably so utterly cowardly out of its comfort zone – has to be that the second half was made entirely a non-event.
The emergence of the intimidatingly talented Dries Mertens for the second half counted for nothing, and our feared Neapolitan opponents were meek: they had nothing better to offer than a series of increasingly harmless efforts including a second offside goal on 55 minutes, and other less than frightening attempts on 52, 62 and 73. A missed tackle by Kolasinac in the box on 88 minutes followed by an inevitable Arsenal free kick felt symbolic, as did an amusing booking for Peter Cech and a brilliant, unintentional knee-back from Monreal to our keeper. That Iwobi only hit the post with an impressive effort and the tireless Aubemayang won nothing more than a corner for his late runs was disappointing, but irrelevant. The increasingly frantic blue waves ran aground on the solid red rocks (too red, given our awful red shorts and socks). It was enough.
Meanwhile Chelsea shipped three goals at home to their challenging opponents from the Czech capital, while Frankfurt turned the tables on Benfica. First things first and Valencia: but, for the first time in months, who can now shrink at the prospect of playing either our unloved city rivals or the aforementioned comeback Germans in a hypothetical final, as dreamlike as that must remain?
We need to relearn the habit of succeeding outside of our comfort zone. If, that is, we hope to return to that competition for which – as things stand – we won't be credibly contending for the trophy itself any time soon. This was our finest, most complete away performance of recent times, along with the endlessly frustrating yet encouraging Wembley effort. Bring on Palace and Wolves. Let's do this.
Arsenal – deliver.
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