How many times in recent memory have Arsenal had a match wrapped-up inside half-an-hour?
Once upon a time, that sort of ruthlessness was our stock in trade. Arsene Wenger’s early sides would blow teams away and then switch into cruise control for the entire second half, with the likes of Bergkamp, Pires and company able to switch up a gear or two again if needed.
It’s a luxury we have rarely experienced in more recent times, however.
What an utter joy, then, that the threat of a season-ending upset in Prague was snuffed out in a first-half flurry that had all the hallmarks of yesteryear. Goals from Nicolas Pepe, Alex Lacazette, and Bukayo Saka put the Gunners in total control and left the fanbase in total shock.
Most of our loins were girded for a torrid 90 minutes and even the most optimistic of Arsenal fans would have expected a tough test after the first leg. In the end, though, it was the hosts who succumbed to the pressure.
Despite the absence of Martin Odegaard, Kieran Tierney and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (who contracted malaria in Gabon, it transpires), Arteta’s men coped superbly with everything Slavia had to offer early on. The Czech side were caught in the no man’s land of a narrow first-leg advantage; unsure whether to commit to extending their lead or holding on to what they had.
The lone advantage of having failed to hold the lead last week was that Arsenal’s purpose in this second leg was clear; they had to come out and attack.
Where they were profligate and careless in front of goal last week, they were deadly this time out. Where they were slow, cautious and standoffish last week, they were aggressive and combative this week. Where the afforded Slavia too much respect last time out, they were utterly contemptuous this time.
In all, it was as decisive and deserving a victory as Arsenal have mustered this season, not to mention their most important to date.
There’s no denying that a tremendous amount was riding on this match. The manager and the players would have been under no illusions that defeat would have all but spelled an end to our hopes of European football next season.
It was additionally satisfying, therefore, to see them shoulder that burden so manfully. They out-played their hosts for the full 90 minutes and never once allowed their grip to loosen. What more could any of us have asked?
Inevitably, attentions will now turn to the next round and a reunion with Unai Emery but let’s take a moment to savour this win and the players who made it happen.
With every passing week Pepe looks more like the £70million man we signed from Ligue 1, while Lacazette is enjoying what could well be the best season his Arsenal career. The contributions of Emile Smith Rowe and Saka were typically superb and Granit Xhaka, filling in again at left-back, was faultless.
It’s not often we have a win like this to enjoy as Arsenal fans so, before we move on to the next one, let’s enjoy it. It was brilliant.