Arsenal 1 – 0 Qarabag FK
Tom Cruise saved nations, democracy and the world but that was just child’s play. The next Mission: Impossible film is about a crazed blogger taking his revenge on the world after being forced to write 750 words about last night’s match. As an advert for returning to straight knockout competitions, it was a winner.
A hat-tip to those 21,500 hardy souls who ventured out for a match which left nothing but a carbon footprint over Europe the size of a Chelsea jackboot.
A bitterly cold night, a meaningless match, and uninspiring opposition; welcome to a Nightmare on Group Stage Street.
The officials didn’t want to be there and did their level best to sap what little joy there was of the occasion. The Grinch ran the line and was so fed up with the lack of action that he stole Eddie Nketiah’s Christmas. A deliciously executed header ruled offside; don’t let the humbug choke you, lino.
Don’t let the barely disguised disdain for the event fool you. There were plenty of good things from the evening. Laurent Koscielny’s jog around the pitch for 70-odd minutes set him up nicely for the weekend’s trip to Southampton.
The smile post-match underlined how much it meant to him to return to first-team action. In an unbeaten team, to boot:
It was the end of my rehab, so I am very happy to play today with my team, for this club, and to enjoy it with them on the pitch.
And off the pitch, as well. A respectful joshing helped the old boy put his coat on, underlining the point Bernd Leno made recently. Koscielny is a popular captain.
As well as Koscielny, Nacho Monreal continued his rehab, no, no, no, with a 20-minute cameo. He had nothing much to do either.
International Bright Young Thing
For Unai Emery, the positives were no new injuries suffered and mature performances from the youngsters. If nothing else, they were promising pointers for the future.
Star of the show was Bukayo Saka. When it comes to deciding to his nickname, “Spud” might have sufficed in years gone by. Not now. This is the entertainment age. He needs something with a bit of zing. After his second-half shot which momentarily stunned the goalkeeper, The Decapitator fits the bill.
Unai Emery said Saka played with “big personality” and the player himself enjoyed the occasion. He’d dreamed of playing for the club since he was eight, he would later tell the media.
It was all good; the movement and ease with which he adapted to the first team, especially in a side which never played together before.
Matches this inconsequential make for difficult analysis. You can read too much into youthful promise and too much into indifference. Mesut Ozil will fall into that category.
Ludicrously, he was criticised for limited mobility after appearing to jar his hip. His body language in the preceding minutes didn’t help. He struggled to show any enthusiasm for a fixture for which supporters could muster little enthusiasm. Don’t do as I do, etc.
The reality is that after five weeks absence, he was highly unlikely to come into the XI and produce a world-class performance. Did he do anything to persuade Unai Emery that he is worth a place in Sunday’s XI? Was that ever on the cards? No is the answer in both cases. As with Aaron Ramsey, my guess is that the intention is just to give the German a place on the bench.
We shall see.
Not That The Draw Is Rigged…
The 15 possible opponents who await in Monday’s draw are now known:
FC Zurich, Celtic, Slavia Prague, Fenerbahçe, Olympiacos, Rapid Wien, Lazio. Malmö FF, Krasnodar, Rennes, BATE Borisov, Viktoria Plzeň, Club Brugge, Shakhtar Donetsk, Galatasaray
Olympiacos it is, then. Or Shakhtar…