This was Arsenal with all the trimmings putting on the kind of show expected yet one that all too often morphs into moments of disappointment, as Arsène Wenger poetically puts it. So the great escape is still on but what remains troubling is the necessity to travel to Greece still needing to please the gods.
Wenger finds himself in the grip of the great European paradox. We hear all season about the importance of the top four and Champions League qualification. Liverpool is on fire with excitement at the prospect as the Jürgen Klopp revolution gathers pace. Indeed, Wenger likes to boast of his 18 straight appearances in the group stages, yet he came into this encounter paying his respects to the Europa League.
Pragmatism is a fine attribute but surely misplaced in this context. Perhaps the imperative is not sporting but economic. Maybe the idea is not to win the competition but to guarantee the yield from the group stages and anything else is a bonus. After all Arsenal have not won a knockout tie in five years and Wenger conceded before a ball was kicked last night that such is the technical superiority of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich that progressing deep into the competition is unlikely.
Though this might be a betrayal of the supporters’ aspirations, in this scenario it begins to make sense to slot Arsenal into a European tournament they might win. Wenger even went as far as to claim the English reluctance to embrace the Europa League results from an exaggerated concern about playing on Thursdays. Well, last night’s victory guarantees that should the fates be against them in Pireus, there will be European football of some hue in February.
This place was a cauldron a month ago when Arsenal put two past Bayern. How quickly the mood changes. With the Emirates pock-marked with empty seats it appeared the fans had picked up on Wenger’s shrinking ambition. At least Bayern played their part scoring three inside 25 minutes against Olympiakos.
That news and the must-win nature of the contest gradually filtered into the stimulus. The ease with which Arsenal sliced through what is a modest team demonstrates yet again how inexplicable was the defeat in Zagreb at the outset that set Arsenal on this negative course.
That they should compound that with a second loss at home to Olympiakos suggests the problem might be greater than poor biorhythms in the early part of the season. The puzzle Arsenal have yet to solve is one of consistency. This kind of display should be routine not something coughed up in spells of unanswerable swagger only to disappear inexplicably.
When the ball shifts between the rapid feet of Özil and Sanchez Arsenal are beautifully persuasive. Wenger knows a rest is required if Sanchez is to be profitable in the spring but this was never going to be the night. Wenger was at least able to resist throwing Aaron Ramsey immediately into the fray, Mathieu Flamini fitting seamlessly back into the screening role vacated by Francis Coquelin and Joel Campbell given the job of being busy down the right.
The black kit worn by Zagreb was suitably funereal. Their combination of low cost imports and game Croatian nationals suggests the idea to broaden the Champions League invitation to Europe’s lesser beings remains noble but a stretch.
All things being equal this should have been a non-contest. Its significance last night was rooted not in Zagreb’s strengths but Arsenal’s bewildering fallibility. The return of Ramsay to the squad and the imminent reappearance of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ought to protect against the kind of grim disintegration that followed the glories of October when Wenger was manager of the month.
The work of Klopp at Liverpool, and the even more remarkable rise of Leicester under Claudio Ranieri show what transformations are possible in the right conditions. Both teams are under new management, which has flushed both squads with fresh impetus.
This win has bought Wenger time. The fall of Chelsea and the recent travails of Manchester City present Wenger with the best opportunity he might ever have to add to the last of the three championships claimed by the Invincibles in 2004.
Victory by two clear goals in Greece a fortnight hence will maintain the club’s interest among company where everything about Arsenal says they belong, Europe’s elite. The riches of the Premier League and Arsenal’s position in the global hierarchy are structural guarantees that Arsenal should always contend.
They also remove any excuse Wenger might have for failing. Next October Wenger celebrates 20 years in the post. That’s a long time to remain relevant in your business. Sir Alex Ferguson pulled it off at Manchester United but underpinned his work with 13 Premier League titles and two Champions League wins.
Wenger’s team were back in thrill mode last night, but this should be the minimum requirement not a desperate heave to keep Champions League hopes alive. Arsenal are back in the more prosaic setting of Carrow Road on Sunday, where a similar effort is required to reboot their Premier League settings.