After a six-year hiatus, Arsenal returned to play in the UEFA Champions League last Wednesday evening, with a home game at the Emirates Stadium against a Dutch team, PSV Eindhoven, who have previously been champions of Europe, back in 1988. The closest Arsenal have come to claiming that crown was being beaten finalists in 2006. Moving on to 2023, this transpired to be an evening of some celebration.
The initial stage of any Champions League match has become a well-established ritual: the playing of the competition’s theme music. This is essentially Handel’s Zadok the Priest, which was given a tweak or two in 1992 by a British composer, Tony Britten. I am not sure quite how or where it fitted into the ceremony but it was played (the Handel version, that is) during the coronation of King Charles earlier this year; I happened to be in the room and wondered why on earth the new monarch was being acknowledged with the Champions League theme? Anyhow, the Arsenal players had pre-match made no secret of what a big deal this was to them. They had been playing it on repeat in the gym in the build-up to the match. Well, six years had been a long time to wait (albeit only one player in the squad, Mohamed Elneny, had been with the club when they had last heard it played for them). The club even printed the lyrics in the match programme, although programmes seem to be less of a thing than they used to be at football matches.
The match itself was pretty much a stroll for the home team, especially after the interval. By that point they were three goals to the good, courtesy of Bukayo Saka, Leandro Trossard and Gabriel Jesus. On the 70th minute the club captain, Martin Odegaard, made it 4-0 and that’s how it finished. (The celebrations of his goal are shown on the home page.) So that meant a clean sheet for David Raya, the goalkeeper on loan from Brentford who was making his home debut in the place of Aaron Ramsdale, who last month was named in the 2022-3 Premier League team of the season, who had started in Arsenal’s first four games of this season, whose previous competitive outing had been eight nights previously when he had been England’s goalie in a 3-1 win against Scotland at Hampden Park. Holding down one’s place in a Premier League team, especially ones with aspirations of collecting silverware, is a demanding business.
Not that Arsenal’s week ended in unbridled happiness. Despite having twice led the match, yesterday they were held to a 2-2 draw at the Emirates in a Premier League game – by their arch rivals from Tottenham! Instead of hearing a remake of Handel, the team were serenaded by their fans with the chorus from Louis Dunford’s song The Angel (North London Forever). Clearly, on that occasion at least, that music did not work so well.