Fans returned to the Emirates as Arsenal raced past Rapid Vienna 4-1 in their penultimate Europa League Group B match on Thursday. The Gunners, who qualified for the 32-team knockout stage the previous round, welcomed around 2,000 fans before goals from Alexandre Lacazette, Pablo Mari, Edward Nketiah and Emile Smith Rowe keyed a comfortable victory on the night. Koya Kitagawa scored the goal for the visitors. Lacazette got Arsenal off to a stunning start after just 10 minutes when he unleashed an unstoppable blast from 30 yards away that left Vienna goalkeeper Richard Strebinger no chance despite a desperate dive. Defender Mari followed up eight minutes later with his first for the club since joining from South American champs Flamengo — the ex-Man City man snapping a header just inside the far post from a Reiss Nelson corner kick. Nketiah added a third just before the half when he nodded past Strebinger after his initial shot from close range was well-saved by the Vienna keeper. Kitagawa scored Vienna’s goal in the 47th minute, sweeping home from close range after a pair of impressive Sead Kolasinac clearances denied what looked like sure goals. Minutes after coming on, second-half substitute Smith Rowe restored the three-goal margin in the 66th with a simple finish of a well-spotted Ainsley Maitland-Niles cutback in the box. After a three-month hiatus, English soccer cranked back into action in June, but the country’s gleaming Premier League stadiums have since been eerily silent and sad places on match days, stripped of atmosphere. With London placed in the government’s Tier 2 restrictions following the end of national lockdown, Arsenal were the first top-flight club to have the opportunity to open the turnstiles to a limited number of fans. Normally no-stakes Europa League group game against such modest opposition, with Christmas looming, might have been an excuse for a night on the sofa or at the local shopping centre. But it felt like a momentous occasion for the lucky few with tickets on a cold and damp north London night. “I’ve been coming since the Emirates opened [in 2006]. It means absolutely everything,” 25-year-old fan Josef told Reuters before kickoff. “I felt quite emotional on the walk over here — just the sort of buzz of seeing people back in scarves, back in hats, back in kits. It means the world to be here.” Another fan, Stevan Rowan, added: “Since last year there’s been nothing to do. Going to games just makes everything a lot better than what it was.” Once inside and socially distanced in neat lines, most wearing face coverings, it felt like business as usual. Much-loved mascot Gunnersaurus, threatened with extinction a few months ago because of cost savings, plodded around the touchline, and it did not take long for the fans to get their lungs working with a rendition of “We Hate Tottenham”. Arsenal’s players applauded the fans before kickoff, and when Lacazette smashed home his side’s opening goal, the whole team joined him on the touchline to milk the applause.
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