“Believe” was the word stamped across the cover of the Arsenal programme in bold white letters. Belief has come and gone among Arsenal fans this season, though it has long been a mercurial quality at the Emirates. When Unai Emery masterminded a 22-game unbeaten run in the autumn and it felt as if the team were breaking out of the brittle cocoon of the late Wenger era, belief flitted lightly across the stadium rafters like a fresh and fragile butterfly. When they lost 3-1 to Rennes last Thursday, it was vapourised like a bluebottle which had dozed idly into the pale glow of a kebab shop fly zapper and been viciously electrocuted.
Just as hope dies, so it is reborn, as it was with a win against Manchester United at the weekend. Just as hope is reborn, so it takes flight, as it did after five minutes of the second leg against Rennes when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang put the simplest of finishes on a neat ball across the box from Aaron Ramsey. With half a dozen incandescent flares bursting into life in the away end at kick off and belching out plumes of red smoke like a fiery volcano, all that could be seen at one end of the field was the vague outline of Petr Cech; an ominous helmeted figure in the fog. Rennes fans may wish the teams had started at opposite ends, though Aubameyang could probably have finished the chance in zero visibility conditions.
Arsenal had the aggregate scoreline they needed when, with 15 minutes on the clock, Ainsley Maitland-Niles scored a belting header at the far post. In a confused build-up, Ramsey had threaded a ball through the lines towards Sead Kolasinac but, clearly offside, Arsenal’s burly left wing-back had merely thrown his hands up in the air and shrugged. Meanwhile, Aubameyang, also under heavy suspicion of offside, sprinted to the goal line just in time, hooked a cross to the far post and found the onrushing Maitland-Niles. While Arsenal defender Sokratis – suspended for this match – claimed that VAR would have spared him the red card which so changed the first leg in France last week, all of a sudden the absence of technology at this stage of the Europa League seemed expedient for Emery’s side.
A fast start for Arsenal soon became a meandering jog, with loose discipline and sloppy final balls – not least from Mesut Ozil who, so often the scapegoat in defeat, could fairly be described as looking like a sad wooden boy in victory – slowing the game down. This was not a performance which screamed ‘Europa League champions-to-be’ necessarily, even if Aubameyang added a third as the match wore on. With Valencia, Napoli and indeed Chelsea still in the competition, Arsenal are bound to face a much higher quality of opposition from here on out. They will need to bring fresh energy and focus to the quarter-finals if they seriously intend on winning the thing.
Still, whether or not Arsenal have what it takes to make it to the final in Baku, they live to fight another day in a competition which they could easily have exited at the last 16. That would have heaped enormous pressure on them in the race for the Premier League top four, which is far from a done deal. So a viable route to the Champions League next season remains open to them, as does the possibility of a first European trophy since Tony Adams and co won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994. There’s still a chance, then, even if Arsenal need to do much more before their fans allow themselves to truly believe.