Arsenal in the Europa League 2017-18: My ten favourite memories
- Credit: Archant
It’s the Europa League final in Lyon between Atletico Madrid and Marseille. Arsenal fell in the semi-finals to Atleti earlier this month after 14 matches in the tournament stretching back to September. Arsenal reporter Layth Yousif reported from the majority of matches in North London and all across Europe. Read his end of season, tongue-in-cheek, review of the Gunners campaign as he recalls his memorable moments on and off the pitch during Arsene Wenger’s final season.
1) Buy or sell...
15,000 Cologne fans helped create a tremendous atmosphere, one of the best in the Emirates 12 year history. Just don’t ask where they all got their tickets from…
2) They know their football in Belgrade
Belgrade is a wonderful city and the Marakana Stadium where Red Star Belgrade is one of the most intimidating on earth – having watched football on four continents not much matches it for noise. Incredible. At the post-match press conference after Olivier Giroud’s excellent overhead kick won the match, I asked Arsene Wenger his views for a feature I was writing and he replied firmly: ‘People here know their football’. He wasn’t wrong.
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3) Some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England...
Belgrade also allowed me the chance to lay a poppy and an Arsenal badge at the War Grave of a good friend’s RAF hero grandfather who was shot down over the city in April 1944. I managed to locate an immaculate cemetery kept by the War Graves commission only hours before kick off to pass his respects on – and mine. As the man who tended the graves said to me, waving his hand across the scores of white headstones: ‘These people are heroes’.
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4) Heaven is a place on earth
Driving to Cologne overnight only takes eight hours and as a mate said ‘you just hang a right at Belgium. With Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ album playing loudly in my car it felt even shorter. It was fitting on my drive I whizzed past Liege as it was my first European away trip back in 1993 – more than 100 Arsenal and England trips ago.
When I finally got to Cologne and parked up near the hotel I was staying in with pals, before I walked to a late night bar at 4am to catch up with them they sent the German barman into the street to hand me a beer.
As welcomes go it was one of the best. As matches go, despite Cologne being a wonderful city peopled with football obsessives and great bars, not to mention other types of entertainment, the 90 minutes was appalling.
I’m genuinely sad they got relegated. But the result was indicative of how badly Arsenal played at times this season – but the 1-0 defeat was indicative of the worst type of football Wenger’s team’s played towards the end of his tenure: disjointed and disinterested.
When I asked Wenger after the match which players had impressed him it was instructive to hear him immediately say teen starlet Reiss Nelson – who was to earn an extended deal only a few months later.
The match was instantly forgettable the trip wasn’t. Certainly when you add the fact the legendary Belinda Carlisle – on Twitter I hasten to add – joined in a 3am bar conversation about the genesis of one of the Cologne songs that was the tune to Heaven is a place on earth.
Having a bar full of Cologne fans serenade you and your pals with their rousing anthem that was the tune to ‘You Take The High Road’ at 5am is one of those things that needs to be experienced in your three score years and ten on this planet.
5) Graham Potter and his chamber of secrets
I didn’t make the trip to Ostersunds as it was half-term and as a football reporter you rarely get a moment to spend you’re your family during the season, so I took the opportunity to switch off for a week. Unfortunately after a good opening 15 minutes Arsenal appeared to as well. The fact they came away with a 3-0 lead flattered them as the Swedes deserved more under the impressive Graham Potter.
The Englishman’s work may have been a secret to many prior to the tie but everyone knew about him and his team after the second leg as they triumphed 2-1 to give their fans – and the rest of Europe – the chance to praise them. Never has a 4-2 aggregate win in Europe appeared so misleading.
6) 2-0 in the San Siro...
The 2-0 victory AC Milan in Italy was probably the best result of the season – and most unexpected. Fast on the heels of the two hugely disappointing 3-0 defeats against Manchester City in the League Cup final and four days later on a bitterly cold night at the Emirates in front of no more than 25,000 fans - as well as a poor 2-1 defeat at Brighton days later - not many travelled to the majestic San Siro expecting Arsenal had a chance. Yes, the damage was done in terms of Wenger’s future with those three defeats – as we were to understand six weeks later – but the victory against the Rossoneri showed just what Arsenal are capable of. Sometimes.
7) Forza Juve
I spent three days in Milan covering all things Arsenal. I caught up with pals for two riotous late nights – after filing all my copy of course. The first night saw us drink late into the night after watching Spurs lose to Juventus. After being trolled repeatedly by various Spurs fans on various social media platforms about how special the Champions League is – and that was just from Spurs fans I know – I sent a one line message: Forza Juve. The fact I didn’t get much back afterwards was indicative of how disappointed the majority of Tottenham fans felt afterwards.
The next evening – after an inordinate amount of copy filed following on from that unexpected victory – I visited the canals of Navligi and a few late night bars. A memorable night ensued leading to a leisurely Friday lunchtime in the square opposite the picturesque Duomo.
Channelling my inner James Richardson by buying the pink Gazzetta dello Sport I ordered the largest tiramisu I could find and took a few pictures. Twitter was at its spiky best as I was told not to give up my day job. I smiled and had to agree. One thing I did learn was that a grande Tiramasu is probably not the best thing for a hangover…
8) War and Peace
Having been to Moscow for an England game I love the city. Having studied A level History which included Russian history I would love to go back as a tourist. But with the paperwork longer than War and Peace and a million other things to do I chose not to go and cover the away leg.
After the 4-1 win at home in the first leg Arsenal did appear to have sealed the tie – although as I tweeted at the time after the fourth goal went in: ‘Why does it feel like Arsenal have to score five to make the second leg a formality?’
As it was Wenger’s side were on the ropes and could easily have stumbled, pulling out a 2-2 draw to secure passage to the semi-finals – after a few heart-stopping minutes.
On another note well done to all the travelling fans for being such a credit to the club – and their various countries – and well done to the locals for making the fans feel so welcome. Let’s hope peace also breaks out next month.
9) Long ball disappointment
The Europa League has brought colour and characters, excitement and atmosphere. And the semi-final first leg at the Emirates against Diego Simeone’s side brought the best atmosphere I have ever experienced at the new ground since the club moved from Highbury in 2006.
It also brought disappointment as Wenger’s side threw away a lead against a ten-man side lacking their manager. Through a hopeful long ball. Proving what the majority of fans realised years ago: Arsenal under Wenger for a long time simply cannot defend as well as they should.
The second leg encapsulated every defeat an Arsenal side has experienced over the last decade under Wenger as they went out with a whimper. Never did the Gunners look like enjoying themselves in the passionate Estadio Metropolitano. Even if there was fun to be had in the wonderful Plaza Mayor before the game in the equally wonderful city of Madrid.
When old foe Diego Costa bulldozed through for the goal you knew deep down the end was near. And so it proved. Arsenal weren’t going to sweep to Europa League glory lifted by the thought of an emotional goodbye amid continental silverware in Lyon, where the final is to be played tonight.
The look on Wenger’s face that I saw in the post-match press conference after the match in Madrid said it all – as the realisation sunk in Arsenal and the long-serving Frenchman were waving adios to the Europea League – and his last chance of silverware after a 22 year career.
11) It’s not the Champions League and it’s on Thursday night – but after the experiences over the last nine months at far flung places, the good people I’ve met all across Europe – and a few scrapes along the way for good measure – I for one, can’t wait to do it all again next season. Just don’t expect me to watch tonight’s final with anything other than a whole heap of regrets...
Look out for Layth’s end of season review ahead of the FA Cup final this weekend.
Follow Layth on Twitter @laythy29 and join the Islington Gazette Arsenal Facebook page for all things related to the Gunners.