/ 22 September 2023

Gunners are back with a bang

Bukayo Saka
Prodigal sons: When Bukayo Saka scored the opening goal during the Uefa Champions League match between Arsenal and PSV Eindhoven, the team did not look like it had spent six seasons in the wilderness. Photo: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Getty Images


Is it a coincidence that our beloved minister of electricity — and dance moves — Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, has failed to interrupt a single minute of the Arsenal Football Club fixtures broadcast thus far this season?

Is it a random act of scheduling that the load-shedding that Ramokgopa announces — twice weekly these days — did not interfere with viewing the team’s long awaited return to Uefa Champions League football on Wednesday night?

Or is Ramokgopa, known for his own fancy footwork, a secret admirer of Arsenal and the beautiful carpet ball the team has produced — albeit with varying results — since the days of Arsene Wenger in the mid 1990s?

Has the unbroken run of wins — from a viewing perspective — been simply luck, good fortune, and nothing more, or is the minister an undercover Gunner?

Either way, there has been no disturbance — electrically speaking — of Arsenal’s early fixtures, or of their first game in the Champions League since the 2016-17 season, a triumphant return to Wednesday night football after a six season absence.

There was no real disturbance from a footballing perspective either.

Mikel Arteta’s team did not look like they had spent more than half a decade in the European football wilderness — four seasons in the Europa League and two of Brexit Ball — in their 4-0 against PSV Eindhoven.

To be honest, Arsenal looked like they had never left.

PSV, like Everton in the league at the weekend, were never really allowed to threaten, with Arsenal back four of Benjamin White, William Saliba, Gabriel Marghailes and Oleksandr Zinchenko closing down any threat that managed to make it past Declan Rice.

Unlike Everton, PSV tried to play football, sometimes naively, and let in three goals in the first half, allowing Arsenal to coast their way through the second half to an exceptionally comfortable home win.

A lovely return to Wednesday nights under lights, and a far cry from Arsenal’s last outing in the big league.

That ended with two humiliating  5-1 hammerings — home and away — at the hands of Bayern Munich in the round of 16, an ugly, shambolic end to the Wenger era and a run in the Champions League that began in 1997.

It was absolutely appropriate that it was Arsenal’s number seven, the ridiculously talented Bukayo Ayoyinka Temidayo Saka, who scored the first goal in the return to Champions League football. 

After all, it was Saka, Arsenal’s Star Boy, who led the charge from the middle of the table that eventually brought us back to the Champions League.

For what feels like a lifetime, Saka — along with fellow Hale Ender Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli — kept Arsenal fans hopes alive in Arteta’s first two seasons; provided the backbone for the team he has built since.

Saka has been a force of nature with the football at his feet since he broke into the first team squad towards the end of  2018-19 season; a constant in the rise from eighth place in 2019-20 to fifth in 2021-22 and in last season’s  title challenge.

Who could be a more suitable candidate to bang in the first goal against PSV Eindhoven — and provide an assist for the second by Leandro Trossard — all within 20 minutes of being back in Wednesday night football — than the Little Chilli?

Gabriel Jesus, a relentless, roaming menace who is almost back to his deadly best, and an imperious Martin Odegaard got Arsenal’s other two goals on the big night back, with the game buried by half time.

It was also absolutely appropriate that Smith Rowe finally got his first Champions League minutes against PSV after watching games from the bench all season since his return from injury.

Lovely too to see Reiss Nelson, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Fabio Vieira being brought on to close the game, along with Jorginho, no stranger to either top flight European football or seeing a game over the line.

It’s not just about their discipline and loyalty being rewarded: these are all impact players who change a game as easily as they can kill one off, a far cry from the bench Wenger had at his disposal the last time .

There is still a group to get out of before the business end of the Champions League gets going in February, but Gunners everywhere will have had the return to Tuesday and Wednesday nights under lights they have been waiting — and hoping — for since 2017.