Highbury was often referred to by opposition fans as ‘The Library’. Arsenal’s home ground until the culmination of the 2005/06 season had a reputation for being a bit quiet, and the same nickname continued on after the club’s move to their current home, The Emirates, although it’s perhaps not as prominent nowadays. My visit for the second day of the 2014 Emirates Cup pre-season competition confirmed that the atmosphere isn’t exactly electric, but as said, it was pre-season, so I guess I can forgive Arsenal fans on this occasion.
I have to say outright though, The Emirates is a piece of art. I love the place. I get great happiness out of most of my new visits, particularly at non-league level, but my first Premier League ‘tick’ really was brilliant. It’s far from the soulless bowl of a new-build that seemed to pop up all over the place during the early/mid 00’s, and it’s shaped seamlessly to near perfection. The pitch itself is often compared to newly-laid carpets, and so it should be. Every blade of grass is cut to within an inch of heaven’s front lawn. It really was fantastic. Having said that, a 60,000 seater stadium rises very high into the afternoon sky, and as such, the air gets a little thin up there. For the first time this season, I was forced to bring my jacket and oxygen tank.
The reason behind visiting Arsenal’s paradise came after my Gooner friend Anthony suggested a visit to the Emirates Cup, and coupling a £30 ticket for the both games with a £15 promotional train fare made my mind up for me. We left New Milton at about 10 on the Sunday morning, arriving into London Waterloo just before 12, giving us plenty of time to have a quick look round Oxford Street before heading over to the stadium.
The first Emirates Cup was played in 2007, featuring Arsenal (…duh), Internazionale, PSG and Valencia, with hosts Arsenal coming away from the two day tournament as champions. Since then, the competition has featured a further 15 teams from across the world, and is fast becoming the most popular pre-season tournament there is. With reasonably priced tickets, and good, quality football on offer, it’s not difficult to see why. This year’s offering featured Arsenal (Have you still not worked that out yet?), Portuguese side Benfica, Monaco of France and eventual champions Valencia, who of course hail from sunny Spain.
The 2014 competition also saw the reintroduction of probably the best points system to suit the two-day proceedings. As is in most league competitions, 3 points are awarded for a win, and 0 for a draw. Teams are then also awarded a bonus point for every goal they score. This counteracts the problem of each team only playing 2 of their 3 opponents. With Valencia holding Monaco to a 2-2 draw in the opening game, and Arsenal romping to a 5-1 win against Benfica, it left the Gunners in a strong position at the end of day one.
As sod’s law would have it, day two flipped things completely. Valencia came from behind to secure a 3-1 win against a lacklustre Benfica side in the day’s opening game, before hosts Arsenal, who needed only a point against Monaco to secure the coveted Emirates Cup title, fell prey to a single Falcao header, and the travelling Valencia support went bananas. I’m sure all twelve of them were partying late into the night too.
In all seriousness, the quality of football on show was very, very good. Benfica took an early lead after just two minutes through Derley as they looked to redeem themselves from their humbling the day before, but ultimately, Valencia upstaged them. Chances came like London buses for the Spanish side and they should have found themselves well in front at the break. As it so happened, they took their chances in the second half and came away with 6 points in a game that can only be described as a comfortable victory. Their Portuguese counterparts looked somewhat shell shocked, and never really grew into the game at any stage.
Soon after full-time, the stadium began to pack out as the main party piece came out to begin their pre-game warm up. The Arsenal had arrived… again. I have to say though, the game itself wasn’t fantastic. Arsenal lacked ideas, lacked any creativity, and as you now know, lost the game and the trophy in a fateful 90 minutes. Falcao’s looping header proved to be the difference, and to say it was deserved would be expert analysis. The Gunners didn’t offer a fantastic amount, and ultimately never really looked like scoring the one goal they needed. That being said, they were denied a stonewall penalty late on in the game (a free-kick was given instead), and that likely would have changed the outcome of the entire competition. Football really is fickle sometimes. The real positives came in the shapes of Alexis Sanchez, whose movement was incredible, and young defender Calum Chambers, who looked as assured and as composed as an experienced England centre-back. He really does look like a hugely promising talent, and based on what I’ve seen of him so far, an excellent buy for the Gunners.
After the game, my compulsory mooch around the ground was completed, as well as a visit to the club store to find a club badge. I found one, but was forced to buy a key ring in the same breath as badges by themselves aren’t provided. Bit sneaky that. With badge purchased, and photos with Bergkamp and King Henry snapped, we headed back into the depths of London for food, before moving south towards home that evening.
My first Premier League ‘tick’ proved to be a fantastic one, and I’m looking forward to
more in the coming seasons. I would have perhaps preferred a better atmosphere, but you can’t expect anything to give you goosebumps during friendly games. Looking back on it though, the Mexican wave that lasted a good five minutes or so and swept the entire stadium numerous times was a good laugh.