They came, they sanitised, they socially distanced. Then Arsenal read the room and gave them a show. Every one of the 2,000 supporters who returned to the Emirates has, to one extent or another, been on a journey they had neither imagined nor sought in the past nine months.
Their presence was always going to fuel the evening with high emotion and Arsenal responded by performing with freedom and fun, overwhelming Rapid Vienna and persuading any fans feeling disgruntled at recent Premier League performances that they really had missed the old place, after all.
Where to start with the moments that, all the more surreally given the stadium was around one-thirtieth full, set the hairs ever so slightly on end? Perhaps with the opening goal by Alexandre Lacazette, who produced an individual display to match the occasion and came up with a blistering moment of symmetry.
Lacazette had scored the last goal in front of fans here when West Ham visited 271 days previously, and it took him 10 minutes to provide his own welcome back. It was a marvellous strike from 30 yards, perhaps catching the Rapid keeper Richard Strebinger out with its early execution. The ball flew into the net, neither into the corner nor especially high but swerving viciously, and Lacazette was soon knee-sliding over the touchline towards his public.
“Very special,” said Mikel Arteta of the fans’ presence. “I’m delighted to have them back and they made a huge contribution. We had 2,000 but it looked like many more.” It sounded like that too after Lacazette’s thunderbolt and Arsenal’s players forgot themselves to the extent that the referee, Radu Petrescu, was required to issue a polite reminder that they were due back in position to restart.
If it seemed 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; there was rarely a moment of silence from then on and it felt, at times, like a run-through of greatest hits on and off the pitch.
“One-nil to the Arsenal” was among those belted out in the stands but it did not hold for long. Shkodran Mustafi should have doubled their lead with a free header but, shortly afterwards, Pablo Marí glanced deftly in off the far post from Reiss Nelson’s corner.
The opposition’s paucity needed taking into account but Arsenal were in buccaneering mood, finding a speed and rhythm that had eluded them even in previous convincing wins over Dundalk and Molde. Lacazette and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who had an excellent game in central midfield, then went close before Eddie Nketiah headed in a rebound from his own shot as half-time loomed.
An invisible away contingent were mocked with “You’re not singing anymore”. They might have been two minutes into the second half when, perhaps keen to ensure the experience remained true to its roots, Arsenal fell asleep and Kohya Kitagawa volleyed in. Aside from the fact a Uefa diktat had required they wear their blue third kit to mark the event, that was the only trifling frustration of the night.
Otherwise it rattled on with a sense of mischief and enjoyment. Arsenal peppered Strebinger’s goal but settled for one more, Emile Smith Rowe tapping in straight after coming on for Lacazette. With 20 minutes left Calum Chambers emerged from the bench for his first senior appearance since last December, when he ruptured a cruciate ligament. That cranked the feelgood factor up another notch and Arsenal were still buzzing by the end.
“The lads were saying it makes a huge difference to feel that support and energy,” Arteta said. At one point early in the first half, a section of the support asked each other the time-honoured question of their thoughts on Tottenham. They might be able to form a more accurate opinion about Arsenal’s team when the north London derby is contested on Sunday, but no matter; this match was its own island, its own special place in history, and everybody met its importance head on.