After trips to Wimbledon and The Open in recent weeks, the Emirates Cup felt like something straight from Mars yesterday. Seated firmly in among the hooligans behind the goal, my friend and I got the flip side of the British sporting experience. Preseason or not, the Emirates crowd and the team on the pitch turned the welcome-back outing into an absolute party.
This was my second ever trip to the Emirates, so for me, the magic of being there was still fresh. Walking into the stadium and getting a look at the immaculate grass still gave me the rush of a newcomer. And where last time my dad and I were comfortably on the club level, this time I ended up in the thick of the crazed fans. I certainly prefer the former experience in most ways, but I’m glad I can now understand what it’s like behind the goal. I don’t think I’ll be able to get “What do you think of Tottenham?” out of my head before Christmas. The kid in front of me who looked stunningly like Syndrome from The Incredibles made sure I had every vulgar chant imprinted before halftime.
Given an entire warmup game between Wolfsburg and Villareal to get ahead on drinking, the crowd was in a great mood when Arsenal finally took the field. But what got everyone so energized was the return of Nicklaus Bendtner, the self-proclaimed greatest player in the world and former Arsenal talent at the end of the opening game. Maybe in jest more than in sincere admiration, Bendtner was loudly greeted upon his entrance, and got loud shouts every time he touched the ball. It was wonderfully entertaining.
With the exception of seeing that Petr Cech wasn’t going to play, I was pleased with the team yesterday. From where I was sitting, twenty rows up behind the goal in the North End, we had a spectacular view of the action on our end. And thankfully, in the first half, Arsenal headed towards us. What immediately stood out to me was the movement of Mesut Özil. Normally, when somebody is described as floating on a sports field, that is a bad thing. But the ease and fluidity with which Özil moved up and about the pitch was stunning. I’m certainly an Özil lover, but seeing him in person and up close made me appreciate how good of a player he is on another level.
The first twenty-five minutes went by uneventfully. Arsenal seemed to be going through the motions, and Lyon somehow had the best chance. Alex Iwobi was impressive on the left flank, but he looked indecisive in the final third and afraid to shoot. Then, after Özil broke free and saw a shot blocked from close-range, things really got going. The first goal from Olivier Giroud was typical. A straight-forward set-piece ended up in the back of the net after Giroud missed the ball with his head, as his shoulder did the work instead, looping it into the top corner. Say what you want about the man, but he’s going to get his fifteen to twenty goals. I’m certainly not opposed to upgrading, but he’s pretty reliable when it comes down to it. Also, I’m glad I finally know na-na-na Giroud is sung to the tune of Hey Jude. It makes so much sense now.
Minutes later, a brilliantly worked counter-attack led by Aaron Ramsey and held up perfectly by Giroud saw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain sent through on goal. Blowing by defenders all game, the Ox calmly slotted the ball into the far corner with his right boot. The celebrations in our end hadn’t yet ended when but a minute later, Ramsey threaded a ball through to Iwobi, who powered it into the goal. Where most players had muted celebrations in this preseason friendly, Iwobi boosted the atmosphere with a jubilant slide in front of the corner flag. His teammates might give him a hard time, but that endeared him to me all right. Suddenly, the crowd was only interested in celebrating. Our Arsenal were back.
And before we could settle down, Özil set up another with a perfect ball into Ramsey’s path, with a deft flick off the outside of his foot nestling into the net. 4-0. I couldn’t have asked for more excitement on our end as the goals flooded in right in front of us. Arsene Wenger is going to have tough choices to make in the midfield all season. But one thing that is entirely clear is that Özil and Ramsey need to be on the field together. They seem to have a second-sense for where the other is going to be. And the Ox is going to have a special season if he stays healthy.
Once the action went to the other end and the substitutions came in droves, the game was a bit harder to follow, especially as the drunkards around us were all turned around trying to think of the next song to sing. My friend, a D-1 cross-country and track runner, was particularly interested in watching Per Mertesacker’s dinosaur-like movements. She had asked in the first half whether everybody out there could run a sub-5 mile, and I guessed yes with one exception. After watching him intently for a while, I don’t know if he could break 6. But none of that distracted from the magnificence of Özil, which continued with the fifth goal. And by the time Santi Cazorla cheekily went under the wall with his “weak” left foot for the sixth goal, we’d all come to the conclusion for the day that our team is a good one.
Of course, that assessment could change rather quickly. Next Sunday’s date with Chelsea looms as a potential bubble-burster for all the optimism, but for the moment, it’s quite nice dreaming of a title-winning side. I’d have more to say on personnel and their performances, but from where I was, it was hard to judge a player fully, though I suspect most would be rated quite highly.
Before the match, I ended up going with a gold Francis Coquelin jersey, much to the kit personalizer’s dismay. Somehow Coquelin isn’t on file in the Arsenal store yet – nor is Hector Bellerin – so the attendant had to carefully cut out and measure each letter individually before carefully placing them on the shirt and heat-pressing them on. Coquelin might seem an odd choice, but I am confident he will remain firmly in the side and I like that he wears Boston’s number of choice, 34. Plus I always like to be different with my favorite players and jerseys, and Coquelin certainly fits along with the middle relievers and second-unit Celtics I’ve adored. With Wilshere, Özil and Coquelin shirts now at my disposal, I should be ready for any match-day.
All in all, the return to the Emirates proved to be a grand celebration of what’s to come. If Özil can stay healthy, there is enough talent around him to make this team extremely competitive. It may just have been preseason, but 6-0 against a decent Lyon side is a statement of intent. The Gunners aren’t messing around this year.