They came, they sanitised, they socially distanced. Then Arsenal gave them everything they could have hoped for. Alexandre Lacazette had scored the last goal in front of supporters at the Emirates when West Ham visited 272 days ago; it took him 10 minutes to greet their 2,000 returning fans with a thunderbolt and there was no let-up after that.
There may have been little riding on this match, in a material sense, for Mikel Arteta’s side but that was hardly the point: they approached it with a gusto that did full justice to the event’s wider importance, playing with a sense of purpose and fun. Pablo Marí, Eddie Nketiah and Emile Smith-Rowe added further reasons to cheer, ensuring there was scant danger of Rapid Vienna marring a surreal but warming night that will live in the memories of those present.
What a moment it was when Lacazette produced exactly the spark this occasion demanded. Ainsley Maitland-Niles had nudged the ball into his path but, given he was at least 30 yards out, a shot did not really seem on. That did not stop him from trying one and it was struck so early, with such power and swerve, that the Rapid goalkeeper Richard Strebinger was surprised.
The ball flew into the net, neither high up nor in the corner but with a winning ferocity; Lacazette marked the feat with a knee-slide towards the touchline and so prolonged were the Arsenal celebrations that the referee, Radu Petrescu, was required to issue a polite reminder that they were due back in position to restart.
The noise that greeted Lacazette’s strike was worthy of a crowd several times the size. If it sounded like a catharsis then that is probably what it was. The evening’s tone had risen steadily ahead of kick-off and it was impossible not to feel moved when, after the teams emerged for the start, Arsenal’s players formed a line and ran across to the east stand as one.
The applause between footballers and fans was loud, prolonged and genuinely affecting; everybody involved in that moment of communion has, to one extent or another, been on a journey they had neither imagined nor sought in the past nine months and the significance to many of those present will have been profound.
If the faithful felt out of practice then it did not show and, besides, they were given plenty of opportunity to exercise their muscle memory beyond Lacazette’s goal. “One-nil to the Arsenal,” they sang, but that did not hold for long.
Shkodran Mustafi should have converted a free header almost immediately but then Marí, on his return from injury, went one better by glancing Reiss Nelson’s corner in off the far post.
Further chances came and went for Lacazette, who struck the outside of a post, and the impressive Maitland-Niles.
By the time Nketiah delivered a third goal, heading in just before the interval after Strebinger had saved his first shot, the carnival was in full swing. “You’re not singing anymore,” an imaginary visiting support was told by the fans in the traditionally vocal north-west corner, who had earlier offered a few less polite views about Tottenham.
All the old hits were coming out and, albeit against opponents unable to lay a glove on their hosts, it almost felt like that on the pitch too.
In order that the experience remained true to its roots, Arsenal gave themselves a minor problem two minutes after the restart when Kohya Kitagawa volleyed in. Sead Kolasinac had twice blocked brilliantly from Kelvin Arase in the buildup and could be excused for cursing audibly.
Before that, the evening’s only minor frustration had been Uefa’s instruction that Arsenal must mark the occasion in their all-blue third kit. Regardless, everyone continued to enjoy themselves. Lacazette and Maitland-Niles were both denied by Strebinger before the former was replaced by Smith-Rowe. Within three minutes the substitute scored with his first touch, tapping in after fine work from Nicolas Pépé.
The feelgood factor cranked up a further notch when Calum Chambers, who has missed almost a year through injury, came on for the final 20 minutes. Arsenal continued to pepper Strebinger’s goal; they could not find a fifth but, as the ovation at full-time showed amply, that was immaterial.