LONDON • For the first time in 270 days, fans were back inside a Premier League ground as Arsenal welcomed 2,000 supporters into the Emirates for Thursday’s routine 4-1 Europa League Group B win over Austria’s Rapid Vienna.
The hosts had already qualified for the knockout phase, but the sparse crowd in the 60,000-capacity stadium were still in high spirits as Alexandre Lacazette, Pablo Mari, Eddie Nketiah and substitute Emile Smith Rowe all netted to maintain their 100 per cent record.
“I’m delighted to have fans back, they make a huge difference,” said Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta.
“We had 2,000 but they were loud and they were supportive to the team so thanks to them for coming and making the effort.”
Outside the ground, fans held up a banner reading “Home at last, Thank you NHS” in tribute to those working on the healthcare front line battling the coronavirus pandemic. Before kick-off, a video was screened with a message from captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang that read: “Football is all about you, the fans – we have missed you and we are so happy to be welcoming you back.”
Club mascot Gunnersaurus also made a belated return after long-serving employee Jerry Quy, who was initially retrenched, was reinstated after midfielder Mesut Ozil stepped in to cover his salary.
The last game on English soil to have fans was back in March, so they were thrilled to once again go through the turnstiles even though Thursday’s game had no significance other than to confirm Arsenal as group winners.
The club’s website crashed due to the demand for tickets and supporter Dan Anderson felt it was a small step towards normality.
“It’s just getting back to normal. You work hard all week and to have that reward to be able to go to a game at the weekend or at night is what you want,” he said.
While the norm is a long road ahead – pubs around the Emirates remain closed as Tier 2 restrictions mean alcohol cannot be served without food – the players made it clear they missed the support.
“It’s just great to have that sound back and have our 12th man back,” said Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
They make a huge difference. We had 2,000 but they were loud and they were supportive to the team so thanks to them for coming and making the effort.
In Group J, Tottenham warmed up for tomorrow’s north London derby with Arsenal by reaching the last 32 of the Europa League but their 3-3 draw at Austria’s Lask left Jose Mourinho unhappy at the lack of commitment.
While Gareth Bale and Dele Alli converted penalties either side of Son Heung-min’s strike, the Spurs boss felt it showed why his fringe players remain on the periphery.
“Nothing new really,” he said. “The fact the Europa League group phase doesn’t motivate some of the players, I knew it.”
Spurs must beat Belgium’s Antwerp next week to finish as group winners.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS