Even in their wildest of wild dreams, no Arsenal fan would ever have imagined a Europa League tie would become a semi-religious experience.
But, for some 2,000 Gooners on Thursday, the visit of Rapid Vienna to the Emirates Stadium will become just that. A dead-rubber European tie which, in any other year, would represent a night of little or no consequence for many fans will now represent a dazzling highlight in an otherwise miserable year in which so much we used to take for granted became precious to us.
Just imagine the sound of those turnstiles clicking and clacking as they whir into life again, imagine the waft of questionable burger meat in the air, the impossible levels of excitement in the announcer’s voice over the PA system. All those run-of-the-mill minutiae that most will have blocked out over the years will suddenly evoke vivid memories.
The many thousands of Arsenal fans who joined the virtual queue on Saturday morning and sadly missed out on a ticket will watch on with envy, as will those as yet unable to return to watch their own clubs across the UK. How wonderful it will seem to be soaking in a second-tier European tie on a freezing cold Thursday night in December.
Here’s hoping, then, that the return of the fortunate thousands will be met with a buoyant performance from the young Gunners on the pitch, some of whom will will be experiencing such a thing for the first time, even if the crowd is a modest one.
I would expect the likes of Folarin Balogun, Eddie Nketiah, Emile Smith-Rowe and Reiss Nelson to feature prominently, with some possible cameos from the likes of Pablo Mari and Callum Chambers. Just as against FK Molde last week, it will represent a rare chance for the young Gunners to further their cause for a first-team berth, while handing Mari and Chambers precious minutes as they seek a return from lengthy lay-offs.
In normal times, I would expect this to be a pretty drab affair but the return of fans may just lift the team and the mood around a squad low on confidence and in need of a boost. Let’s hope those who have snagged a ticket can create enough of a din to lift all our spirits – god knows we need it after the month we’ve had.
I’m sure, in an ideal world, the manager would prefer to get this game out of the way with as little fuss as possible (and even fewer injuries) but maybe also he will enjoy being back in front of a partisan crowd. I doubt there will be any great innovation from Mikel from a tactical perspective but perhaps he will take the opportunity to test out a tweak or two that might yield results from the weekend’s trip to Tottenham. Time will tell.
Watch out also for Nicolas Pepe, who is likely to feature prominently given his current Premier League ban. He had a decent run-out against Molde in the last round of fixtures so it would be nice to see him grab the game by the scruff of the neck too. If he can build up some momentum and confidence ahead of a return from suspension, it can only benefit a side that is currently lacking in the sort of ‘x-factor’ he possesses.
To all of those out there preparing to make the trip on Thursday, soak it in for all us!
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