Finally, it was my time. Yesterday was, much to my shame, my very first proper Arsenal game, as the Gunners took on AC Milan in the Emirates Cup. I have been a Gooner since I was 6 years old, a member since I was 7, but I had still never been to Highbury or the Emirates in my time as a devoted fan. There are many reasons for this; I live about 3 hours away from North London, so travelling there takes some preparation. Possibly the largest obstacle in my way has been the cost of seeing my team, as tickets in my lifetime have increased to stupid amounts and the availability is usually limited. So the cost of the ticket is pricey enough, but then I have to take into account travel expenses also; it makes attending Arsenal games a bit tricky.
However, there has been one shining light in recent years - The Emirates Cup. A pre-season tournament, only friendlies, but nevertheless a chance to see Arsenal, my beloved Arsenal, in the flesh and with most of the first team in attendance. Since it's existence at the beginning of the 07/08 season, I knew this would be my best chance to get tickets at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, I have been unable to attend the previous tournaments due to a variety of reasons: a sister's wedding, a holiday abroad etc. But this was the year, I had waited long enough, and at the age of 21 it was embarrassing that I still not been to see my team in the flesh. My Dad and I managed to get tickets back in April or May I think it was, and the excitement began to build.
We travelled up to London yesterday morning and managed to arrive at the stadium around 1 o'clock, which gave us an hour to look around and relax before the first game of the day, Celtic vs. Lyon at 2pm. I had been to the Emirates before, on a trip to London for university research purposes, but it was a totally new experience for my Dad. We came out of Arsenal station into a mass of fellow Gooners and we hit the refreshments first for some munch and lunch. I purchased the new issue of Gooner magazine and after chowing down our bacon rolls and chips (healthy right?), we made our way to the stadium. First stop was The Armoury, as a bit of browsing the official store was essential. I was very keen to purchase the new home shirt, but alas, I am but a poor student and shouldn't really be splashing the cash on a £50 shirt when I'm about to go and visit my girlfriend the very next day. After teasing myself with stuff I couldn't really afford, and my Dad leaving disappointed that the shirt he wanted wasn't in his size, we made our way up to our seats, block 91 in the Upper Tier, right on the half way line - a brilliant view. On my way I bought a programme, like I do at every sporting event I go to. The special Emirates Cup edition was very smart, worth the £5 easily.
We settled down just in time for Celtic and Lyon to begin their game, and what a brilliant game it was. Both sides had early chances, but Lyon's movement and quality passing soon came into effect as they began to dominate possession. I hardly knew any of Lyon's players, only Makoun and Michel Bastos really, but they were all very composed and confident on the ball. It was Bastos who got the first goal of the day, a rocket of a free kick that flew into the top corner, a stunner! 1-0 to Lyon, and Celtic were on the ropes early on. I was really impressed with the Scottish contingent that had travelled down to London for the day. They packed their corner of the stadium and were singing and chanting for practically the entire game, even when Lyon took a 2-0 lead through Harry Novillo's goal from a well worked move. Nothing dampened their spirits and they were rewarded for their support with a goal from new signing Gary Hooper, who volleyed home from point blank range, completely unmarked. A nice finish but he was quiet for most of the game and I was constantly wondering why he decided to choose 88 as his squad number. Apparently its because that's when he was born (snap!) and it's his lucky number... ok then. The Celtic faithful were really celebrating now, and had more to look forward to. Substitute Georgios Samaras scored at the death to steal a draw from Lyon, who to be honest chucked the game away after having a comfortable 2-0 lead. But credit to Celtic, who never gave up and got a fine result in the end.
The Arsenal and Milan players soon emerged from the tunnel and came out to warm up. I instantly started trying to identify who I could see and recognise (all of them as it turns out). Before I knew it the players vacated the pitch to get changed, and were back out ready for the start of the match. However, the Celitc fans had all left their seats and were never to return as they spent the rest of the day getting pissed at the bars. I thought it was a bit of a joke really, you pay all that money to come and see a football match, you're essentially getting one for free, and they all buggered off to get drunk leaving masses of empty red seats. It was a real shame, as apart from that corner designated for the away fans, the stadium was absolutely packed. Despite that one small gripe, nothing could ruin my mood as Milan kicked off for my first live Arsenal game. And what a first half it was.
I'm not going to provide a play by play review of the game, you can find that anywhere on the web. I'd rather comment on the players I saw and how I felt they performed on the day. A natural place to begin is with our new signings, Marouane Chamakh and Laurent Koscielny: I was very impressed with both of them. Chamakh, who scored our only goal of the game, was brilliant and I reckon we have got quite a bargain here - he looks to be quite a player. He lead the line well as a lone striker, and his touch was brilliant, confident control on the ball at all times. He showed off a few neat skills and tricks, and his goal was taken extremely well. Arshavin came alive on the wing and brought the ball into the middle before playing a perfect pass into the path of Chamakh, who controlled the ball well before stroking it past Abbiati into the bottom corner. A beautiful goal, and I can proudly say "I was there when Chamakh scored his first Arsenal goal at the Emirates". He came off in the second half to a well-deserved standing ovation, and took home the Man of the Match award. Koscielny, our new centre back from Lorient, was also superb. You can see he reads the game extremely well, making quite a few excellent interceptions and perfectly timed tackles. I had previously read he had been rather shaky this pre-season, but I only saw a very confident player yesterday who looks like he could do well with us. I hope he enjoys the same sort of year Vermaelen enjoyed last season - they could be a very good partnership now Gallas has left the club.
My other impressions of the players are as follows: First of all, it was just amazing to finally see everybody in person. I have seen Gibbs and Randall before, at a testimonial game in Dorchester a couple of years ago. Gibbs started the game at left back, and as much as I love Clichy, I think Gibbs is going to take over that position by the end of this season. He was very good yesterday, always breaking into space going forward and secure at the back. Randall came on in the second half and had two brilliant opportunities late on to win the game for us but he could not finish the game off. Samir Nasri was his usual mesmerising self, a wizard on the ball who twisted the Milan players in knots. He's had a very good pre-season and hopefully he can retain this form when the real season begins in a couple of weeks time. Arshavin put his mark on the game, with that brilliant run, shrugging off Gattuso, on his way to setting up Chamakh for the goal in the 36th minute. The little Russian is always puzzling to me. He often does nothing for long periods of the game, but will suddenly burst into action and create something from nothing. Quite the enigma is our Arshavin. Vermaelen was as dominating as always, strong at the back, and was unlucky not to score early on when his powerful header was just tipped over the bar by the Milan keeper.
Our midfield at the beginning of the game played very good together. Young Emmanuel Frimpong, playing in the Alexander Song position, was impressive and he's very physical, the kind of player Arsenal needs. He never pulled out of a tackle and was always scrapping for the ball - another promising talent for the near future. Jack Wilshere was good, as I expected him to be. He was doing his best Fabregas impression, pulling the strings in midfield, but I felt he was lacking that final pass or touch, that extra something that Cesc has, and what I'm used to watching every week. Still, Wilshere is only 18 and has plenty of time to grow into a complete player. Rosicky, on the right wing in the first half, was good in his time on the pitch, and was unlucky not to score after some good trickery by Nasri. I just like to see him make it through a game without being hurt if I'm honest! The substitutes in the second half were decent, but Milan took advantage of the dip in quality and Pato got them the draw after 76 minutes. Giving away such a soft goal was annoying, but its pre-season so not really a big deal. I felt Fabianski could have claimed Seedorf's free kick but he hesitated, and Djourou didn't deal with it either. Pato couldn't have missed, and he clipped it in to level the game. It finished 1-1, but Milan nearly stole the game when Zambrotta hit the bar in the dieing minutes.
All in all it was a brilliant day out, and everything I expected it to be for my first Arsenal match. I wasn't too disappointed I couldn't see Cesc and Van Persie, I knew they wouldn't be there after their World Cup adventures - I'll just have to catch them in the future (before Cesc goes to Barca I hope!). I also wasn't let down that we only drew after playing so well, because I knew it was only a pre-season game and it was the experience that mattered, the fact I got to see "my boys" in the flesh. We left our seats and checked out The Armoury one last time, where I was even more tempted to get the new home shirt, complete with Chamakh 29 on the back. The lines for the tube were horrendous, but I knew they would be, so I just enjoyed the experience and it was no problem at all. Now I want to go again, for a real game that means something, but I expect I'll have to be patient and save my pennies for that day. We'll see what I can get, maybe a midweek trip to a Champions League group match, or a Carling Cup/ FA Cup game. Anything I can get really! But I'm looking forward to it already.
Thanks for reading, apologies for the essay length!