Arsenal 1-1 Porto (4-2 pens): This Is Where We Want to Be

Just under two weeks ago, I was once again staring intently at a mute glowing rectangle, this time cradled in my palm, later propped up against a pillow, instead of its more popular, larger cousin mounted on a wall, but temporary change of location calls for improvisation. The only other light was that of the full moon filtering in through gauzy curtains. It made stripey patterns against the duvet as I tossed this way, then that, and during lulls, full disclosure, even nodded off, briefly, courtesy of the long day and late hour. Harder than staying awake was keeping my reactions inaudible. Then again, I’d had a lot of practice over two decades of plopping my heart in the hands of a club oceans away.

This skill would be sorely tested—first a few minutes before half-time when a scrumptious defense-splitting pass by Captain Martin found Leandro Trossard, all deft touches and into the net; and later, especially later, when this seemingly nerveless bunch of players emerged triumphant through a penalty shootout, eruptions of joy, relief, and euphoric tears across the Ems and around the world.

We knew the statistics going in: seven successive UCL Round of 16 exits for Arsenal (with Arteta himself in the squad for five), zero wins in five Europa League knockout ties at the Emirates for Manager Mikel, fourteen years since the club had qualified for the quarterfinals of the Champions League. But we looked at Porto as a good omen amidst all the anxiety. They were our opponents the last time we’d gone through to the next stage in 2010 and we’d. overcome a 2-1 first-leg loss to beat them 5-0 at home.

It is particularly significant that we would end up winning on penalties this time, when you think back to a year ago. On March 16, 2023, we were knocked out of the Europa League by Sporting Lisbon, losing 3-5 on penalties at home, following a stellar showing by their goalkeeper Antonio Adán. I’ve been a fan long enough to sense the invisible tremors, and the loss, which included the double serious injury blow to Saliba and Tomiyasu, felt season-defining in the worst possible way, even though I hoped I was wrong. Looking back, there’s no erasing the fact that it was indeed the beginning of the end for Arsenal’s bright season till then and their hopeful title charge ahead.

Artwork by Charbak Dipta

This victory, then, feels like the opposite.

Conceding from Galeno’s strike in the final moments in February at the Estádio do Dragão had been the only blemish in the club’s dizzying turnaround at the start of the new year after a shaky, worrying December. Since then, the club have eight successive Premier League victories with 33 goals scored while conceding only 4, and currently sit at the top of the table thanks to a superior goal difference to Liverpool.

As a (connected) aside, I feel like the Brentford game preceding Porto offered an unexpected chance to pull the curtains over another phase of Arteta’s Arsenal story. When David Raya arrived in North London on loan this summer as the manager’s preferred first choice ahead of Aaron Ramsdale, I know I wasn’t the only one who was surprised. Ramsdale, despite his weaknesses, was one of the club’s standout performers the season before, with a big, lovable personality to boot. I trusted Arteta and I could see how Raya’s strengths collided with the way the manager wanted us to play, but I’ll be honest when I say that my Aaron affection (not to mention the suddenness of the switch) made me a little slower to see what Mikel did. That Raya is the technical and tactical upgrade suitable for Tetaball’s final blueprint. The Brentford game allowed Aaron and us the space for emotional closure, but I still hadn’t “taken” to his replacement like I had to the other new recruits, who for whatever intangible reasons, demanded near-immediate space in my heart. 

And to think, all it eventually took was a penalty shootout just a few days later. Football, bloody hell.

But back to business.

After the match against Chelsea on March 16 was postponed because of the West London club’s FA Cup participation, followed immediately by the international break, Arsenal are the recipient of a three-week gap before returning to league action. A break that many have rued, citing the need to keep our current momentum, but one that I welcomed.

This is a marathon and we’re about to embark on the hardest stretch of it. However, unlike last season, we look more prepared, more experienced.

Ben White and Takehiro Tomiyasu have since signed new long-term contracts, re-pledging their futures to this club and the Arteta project. We have Jurrien Timber’s return to training, the return or anticipated return of other players recovering from smaller injuries. The manager has had breathing room to prepare for the test ahead. The sense of togetherness, whether within the club, or between club and fans, is unlike anything I’ve experienced before.

Considering that our first game back is a trip to the Etihad to face the mighty machine that is Manchester City, only one point behind Arsenal and Liverpool in the table, it was vital for the fate of our season that we overcame the 0-1 deficit against a tough, organised, and experienced (Dark Arts and otherwise) Porto, a match that Arteta rightly considered to be a “test of [our] emotional control”. Because even his Arsenal, this new-look Arsenal, even they, despite the undoubted skill, the star talent, the silky football, and flashes of steely improvement, have shown a naive, youthful tendency to shrink, somewhat, at the toughest moments.

This victory doesn’t mean that the rest of the season will see us be all-conquering. This entire young squad and their young manager are going to need to dig deeper than they’ve ever had to; every scrap of everything they have, luck included, for the tests to come—for unfinished business against Bayern Munich, for the sternest title charge run-in amongst the top three, for a match every three days for seven weeks if they conquer Bayern. But the power of physical and psychological momentum despite the break, of confidence and hard-won experience, cannot be exaggerated. Nor, I suspect, is the allure of making any sort of history even as the club celebrates 20 years of its most famous achievement.

And all that we, as fans, can do? Enjoy the ride and cherish the glowing moments along the way. 

After all, this is what we all wanted. To play the biggest games and fight for the biggest trophies, as Ødegaard said after the Porto win.

This is where we want to be.

Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.