Back in the Champions League, Arsenal look like they belong


LONDON — The excitement was so high at Arsenal over their first Champions League appearance in six years that they printed the lyrics to the competition’s anthem in the matchday program. Not many sang along to “Zadok The Priest” when the time came, but there was an audible cheer as the opening bars rang out across a rain-sodden Emirates Stadium, a cathartic release of the pain suffered through their prolonged absence from Europe’s premier club stage.

The Gunners were determined to seize their moment back in the big time, and they did not disappoint, cruising to a 4-0 win over PSV Eindhoven on Wednesday achieved through an authority typically associated with seasoned Champions League campaigners. None of the starting lineup for their previous outing — a 5-1 home defeat to Bayern Munich in March 2017 — are still at the club, though.

There is only one surviving member of the squad — midfielder Mohamed Elneny — from that night, and with a Champions League rookie manager in Mikel Arteta, the home side could have been forgiven if they approached this vaunted occasion with a little hesitancy. None was on show despite the adrenaline coursing through their veins.

“It was great to see the atmosphere and the Champions League music,” Arteta said in his post-match news conference. “Everyone was getting a bit emotional before it. I was [emotional], yeah. I was excited about it. I wanted to control and not show that too much, but I was excited.

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“The journey started last year when we earned the right to be in this competition, which is where we have to be as a club. Now we have to produce what we have to produce to stay at this level.

“I think we rode that energy and emotion in the right way. Talking about the enjoyment. We have to compete at this level, but you have to enjoy [these moments] because I think in the end that’s what is going to be a memory.”

Although it has to be said that PSV’s defending was distinctly Europa League, Arsenal showed the sort of ruthless efficiency in front of goal that Arteta has bemoaned in the club’s Premier League campaign to date.
Games have been tighter than Arteta liked because of a failure to translate their superiority to the scoreline, but they raced into a 3-0 lead inside 38 minutes as Bukayo Saka, Leandro Trossard, and Gabriel Jesus all found the net with three well-taken finishes.

PSV had no answer to Arsenal’s firepower, and it enabled Arteta to switch to autopilot in the second half, making a raft of changes with Sunday’s north London derby in mind, including rest for Jesus, Saka, and midfield lynchpin Declan Rice. Martin Ødegaard took advantage of yet more freedom in dangerous areas to add a fourth on 70 minutes, drilling home from the edge of the box in what is rapidly becoming his trademark style.

PSV offers a measure of Arsenal’s recent evolution given these two teams met in the Europa League group stage last season. Last October, the Eredivisie side narrowly lost by a solitary goal in north London and won the return game 2-0.

Arsenal has since invested heavily, with Trossard arriving in January, and Rice and Kai Havertz — who both started here — joining in the summer. The result was a statement win that lays a solid foundation from which they can build their Group B challenge.

On another night, David Raya’s selection in goal would have been more of a talking point. Arteta has played up the prospect of rotating his goalkeepers this season, but it feels ominous for Aaron Ramsdale that Raya started for the second consecutive game here.

Any suggestion Ramsdale could be Arsenal’s cup competition keeper was swiftly eliminated here. If Raya starts against Tottenham Hotspur and Ramsdale is inserted for next Wednesday’s EFL Cup tie at Brentford, the hierarchy will be conclusively established.

Raya’s ability with his feet was the principal reason Arsenal went for the Spain international, agreeing to an initial season-long loan from Brentford before an option to make the move permanent that the Gunners will almost certainly take up.

The game’s first action felt poignant in this context.
Jesus played the ball straight back to Raya, who then attempted to launch an Arsenal attack, enabling the backline to start noticeably higher up the pitch. Raya ended with 58 touches, more than midfielder Havertz, who played 90 minutes in one of his more encouraging displays in a Gunners shirt.

Unwilling to enter into further discussion over the decision, Arteta explained it as “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.”

Arteta was gently mocked in some quarters for once playing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” during training in an attempt to acclimatize his players to face Liverpool at Anfield only to then lose. According to Jesus, several members of the squad chose to play the Champions League anthem in the gym earlier this week, partly in jest.

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