In 2007, as I made my way to the O2 arena to watch the Led Zeppelin reunion concert, I bumped into somebody who started extolling the virtues of the new Arsenal stadium, The Emirates. “It’s been beautifully built,” he said. “Not like Wembley, which will fall down. I know….I’ve worked on both.” He went on to say that Arsenal’s manager, Arsene Wenger, was deeply involved in discussions around the Gunners’ new home. “It’s the best ground in Britain,” he insisted.
Six years later, I have to share the opinion of the “mad man on the tube”. Arsenal’s stadium is, in my view, the best around. I liked Highbury, with its art-deco stands, the clock end, the singing policeman (ok, that shows my age) and the legend of the marble halls. As only an occasional visitor, I had no right to mourn its passing, but it was my favourite away ground by far and every day, I can see what’s left of it in the distance as I travel to London. Surely, I have often thought, the Emirates is another soulless new ground? Not a bit. It’s a genuine Euro home of football. Whereas Highbury was cosy, quintessentially British, sorry English, steeped in history and haunted by the ghost of Herbert Chapman’s past, the Emirates is tailor-made for the Champions League anthem.
Arsenal v Napoli was an appetising fixture to pick. Wenger’s men had recovered from their opening day flop against Aston Villa (and subsequent media mauling), signed one of Europe’s top players and had shot to the top of the Premier. It’s amazing what £42m can do for morale!
Napoli, however, were second in the Italian Serie A, a good start for Rafa Benitez in his first season in charge. The word on the street was that they were a team full of suspect hair-cuts, and judging by the appearance of their skipper, Marek Hamsik, the rumours were right. He would have been more at home in the world of Mad Max.
After Arsenal lost to Villa, frowns were as broad as the sweeping roof of the Emirates, but the stadium’s positive vibe was very uplifting to the casual onlooker. The whole buzz around the Emirates was quite passionate, but it’s definitely more Fever Pitch than Football Factory in this part of London. Arsenal fans are starting to believe that their team might just do something this season and in this campaign of transition across the Premier, it could just be their time again. They’re wise to be cautious though, because they have had a few false dawns since they last brought out the silver polish in 2005, but there’s a sudden rush of confidence at the club again.
The signing of Mesut Ozil has been a huge lift to Wenger and his team. I must admit, I don’t rate him as “one of the top six in the world” like some pundits have claimed in recent weeks, but he’s very, very good and I would anticipate he will take the pressure off a few of Arsenal’s perpetually promising players. Jack Wilshere, whose career has been somewhat staccato in the last two years, may find the intense focus on him eases off – just as well as all that time on the treatment table looks to have stretched the seams of his shorts a little – and one or two others may have the breathing space to flourish.
Ozil’s not the only German to capture the hearts of the Emirates. As the fans kept reminding us, they have a “f***** big German” in the form of central defender Per Mertesacker, the 6ft 6in Hannoverian, and of course, striker Lukas Podolski. “Poldi” missed the Napoli game after sustaining an injury that will keep him out until December.
Talking of strikers, critics of the Gunners may point to Wenger’s failure to snare a truly top-class front man, notably in losing out on Gonzalo Higuain to [of all clubs] Napoli. That may actually have galvanized the club to lure Ozil to the Emirates, for it was clear Arsenal had to send a strong message to the rest of football that tried and tested – rather than young and potential-rich – players could be brought to North London.
Ozil hadn’t scored for Arsenal until the Napoli game, so when he put Arsenal ahead in the 8th minute, there were joyous celebrations with Ozil’s wide-eyed face dominating the huge video screens. It was a purist’s move, one which characterized Arsenal’s countless cavalry charges down the flanks. Olivier Girourd to Aaron Ramsey (nice flick) and his cross was side-footed past Pepe Reina. Seven minutes on, Ozil created a similar goal for Giroud. If Benitez had been in charge at his previous club, the abuse at this point would have been deafening.
Napoli were very disappointing for a team that has started the season well in Italy, which may say more about the current state of Serie A than anything else. They lacked pace, found Arsenal’s fleet-footedness in midfield too much and up front, they missed the injured Higuain. In short, Napoli didn’t look like they fancied a scrap, unlike their supporters, who decided to dismantle a nearby pie shop, the famous Piebury Corner, and inflict near-mortal injury on an unfortunate Arsenal fan. On the pitch, though, in keeping with their dirty khaki/olive kit, Napoli resembled out-of-sorts tourists camouflaged as a football team!
In the second half, the home fans decided to amuse themselves as the game began to peter out. While Arsenal’s fans sang songs that suggested they were longing for their old home – “We’re the clock end, Highbury” – Napoli’s response was some high pitch warbling of the kind that normally accompanies the rising of the sun (note to self, BBC Radio 4, tweet of the day, 6am each morning…must give it a listen). Actually, aside from some dangerous crosses that caused Napoli anxiety, the latter stages of the game was far less frenetic than the opening half hour when Arsenal played some brilliant football. Still, the damage had been done already and the Gunners were able to relax, show a few tricks and send on Wilshere. Final score, Arsenal 2 Napoli 0.
So we filed out of the hugely impressive huge ground, all 60,000 of us. Arsenal have control of their Champions League group, they are top of the Premier, the team has regained its mojo and suddenly everyone loves Wenger again. Happy days are here again. “Good old Arsenal, we’re proud to say that name”.
For me, though, there’s one vital thing missing. Constable Alex Morgan. In this hi-tech age, couldn’t they find one of those Star Wars-esque devices where his video image could stand in the corner of the stadium singing a song or two before saluting to the crowd? (They’ve planted something similar at the new Kings Cross station).