Arsenal saved their best performance of the season for their biggest match. This was a truly outstanding display that leaves them three matches from a return to the Champions League elite. The spectre of failure remains, of course – but less so if they keep playing like this.
It was 1995-96 when Arsenal last didn’t play in Europe and with the club mired in mid-table and out of all domestic cups that scenario keeps the stakes high. Mikel Arteta needs to lift a second trophy, the Europa League to go with last season’s FA Cup. And that’s pressure. So, credit is due to the players who steered such a comfortable and competent path past Slavia Prague – a team that last lost at home close to 18 months ago. Arsenal were three up within 24 minutes, before Alexandre Lacazette made it four with his seventh goal in nine games.
He has been enjoying a new lease of life with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in disgrace and now ill. His malaria diagnosis will explain certain weaknesses of late but Lacazette has responded in his absence and took responsibility here with two goals. So, too Granit Xhaka, who has filled in impressively in a wide defensive role and made a lovely pass to the excellent Nicolas Pepe for the fourth.
Yet it is Arsenal’s young players who have been catching the eye this season and Thursday night was little different. Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith-Rowe in particular were outstanding, and it was their speed and intelligence that Prague could not cope with in the first half.
Surely Arsenal’s focus, from here, is clear. Arteta knows only too well the significance of a Europa League win and he would be mad not to prioritise the semi-final and a meeting with his predecessor Unai Emery and Villarreal over mundane league fixtures. To take this team into the Champions League, even by a back door route, would be an outstanding achievement and this win was a big statement of intent.
Arteta may not be altogether happy with the start to his Arsenal managerial career but with last season’s FA Cup final win over Chelsea, and now this, it cannot be argued he is not the man for the big matches. It could be the right time to play Arsenal in domestic competition, but Villarreal will not be relishing their collision seeing this performance, even if Emery knows every little flaw in their squad. Arsenal’s season on the line but, for once, they rose to that challenge.
This is a club that has been too used to settling of late. That settled for a place in the Champions League rather than a genuine impact on the competition; that settled for fourth as a trophy; that settled for endless transition; that sacrificed ambition for financial security; that settled for the Europa League, and were grateful for that. And it looked as if they might have to settle this season, too, that the big six might become five with one rooted in mediocrity.
Yet in a brilliant 10-minute spell at the Eden Arena, those presumptions were blown away. Arsenal did not settle this time. There may be little left to play for at home – other than the local pride of finishing above Tottenham – but Arsenal in Europe is very much a live event. And while the Europa League is still on, so is the Champions League next season. This was a huge win. Between minutes 14 and 24, Arsenal scored four times. The first did not count, and by the smallest of margins, but the other three did and the tie was done with over an hour to spare.
To think we were worried that Slavia Prague might have too much for them at home. It was November 27, 2019, when they last lost in Prague – to Inter Milan in the Champions League – and that late away goal in the first leg looked as if it might be significant. Arsenal made it an irrelevance.
This tie was done when the second went in, and that a third followed almost immediately merely conjured a sense of futility. Slavia coach Jindrich Trpisovsky made four substitutions at half-time, suggesting this was now a time for resting legs and damage limitation.
Slavia Prague were outclassed and knew it. They do not possess young players of the calibre of Saka and Smith-Rowe. Few clubs do. They took the game away from Slavia, and took their chances in a way that, had it happened in the first leg, would have made this return a formality.
Arsenal started slowly, but their first break forward of note looked to have given them a lead. Saka’s shot was palmed onto the left post by goalkeeper Ondrej Kolar – still wearing face and skull protection as a memento from that truly horrid game in Glasgow in the previous round.
The ball flew out and Smith Rowe was first to it, beating David Zima to the ball and firing home. And then, the dreaded VAR delay. It is worse in European competitions where replays are not shown, meaning everyone hangs around in the dark waiting for the voice from above.
When it came, it decreed that Smith Rowe had strayed narrowly offside before attacking the loose ball and Prague breathed again. That reprieve lasted all of four minutes. It was a lovely passing move that led to the first goal. Calum Chambers was involved, so too Thomas Partey, but it was Smith Rowe who was the creator with a quite exquisite pass inside to Pepe.
He moved very quickly to evade his marker and lifted the ball sweetly over goalkeeper Kolar. It was a vital away goal – but Slavia’s task was about to become so much harder.
From Arsenal’s next attack just two minutes later, Smith Rowe broke down the right, causing consternation and feeding Saka, who was looking increasingly untameable. Sure enough, Jakub Hromada bundled him over and referee Cuneyt Cakir pointed immediately to the spot. Lacazette stood up to take it. His penalty was smart, low and sent Kolar the wrong way. It was becoming increasingly difficult for Arsenal to make hard work of this.
Certainly, after the 24th minute when the third went in. By now, the fact Leicester lost to this Slavia Prague team earlier in the competition was becoming genuinely puzzling.
Chambers played Saka in on the right again and he checked inside before fooling Kolar by striking his shot towards the near post. Kolar had been following the movement to the opposite side of goal. It took him completely by surprise – much as a 3-0 lead so soon in the first half will have confused many Arsenal fans. What happened to doing it the hard way?
The last summed up the difference between these teams. Arsenal, clinical and expansive, Slavia Prague sluggish and floundering, well beaten and unable to resist.
Xhaka played a lovely ball to Pepe down the left and he picked out a man, not an area, with a well-directed cross. Lacazette controlled it and had time to take two or three touches, looking for an angle as Slavia’s defence watched beguiled. Finding his spot, he shot the ball past goalkeeper Kolar and the game was done. Crisis? What crisis?