On the home front, it is a seemingly unstoppable Norwegian force that is dampening Arsenal’s expectations of Premier League glory even as they sit atop the table in the quarter-finals of the campaign.
A trip to the Scandinavian country, however, posed no problem for Mikel Arteta’s side, who moved a short distance from the Europa League knockout stage with a 1-0 victory over Bodo /Glimt.
Twenty kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, on artificial ground, against a local team on a magnificent 14-game winning streak at home in Europe, best known to England fans for inflicting José Mourinho’s heaviest defeat in his career had the makings of a hard night’s work.
In the end, despite what ended up being an impressive display from the home side, it never quite turned into the chilling scrutiny Arsenal were to anticipate as they left London yesterday afternoon.
That may be because the pouring rain and strong wind that had raged through this small town for much of the day had thankfully died down in time for kick-off, much to the relief of 400 traveling fans in the most exposed extremities.
Maybe it’s because, thanks to a winter World Cup, this season’s Europa League group stage will end long before the elements really take their harshest turn and the days long and dark don’t settle in this part of the world.
Or maybe – most likely – it was because Mikel Arteta, with an early qualification in sight, bet on a stronger than expected team and got his reward as star man Saka scored the only goal in the match.
Three more points mean Arsenal are a perfect nine from nine in this season’s competition, with the oddity of a postponed game meaning they are on the brink of the knockout stages without yet having to face PSV Eindhoven, the only team from group A with something like comparable European pedigree.
Qualification may be sealed when the Dutch side travel to the Emirates next week, raising the prospect of precious dead rubbers in a busy schedule, although securing top spot remains a key priority beyond that, as the Group winners have the luxury of a bye into the Round of 16 and avoid a potentially savory playoff with a Champions League dropout in the new year.
Arteta’s squad selection has suggested he takes little for granted at this stage. Along with Saka, Ben White and William Saliba – both enjoying excellent starts to the season in defense – have retained their places since Sunday’s thrilling win over Liverpool, as has Martin Odegaard, playing a club game in Norway for the first time since leaving for Real Madrid. like a teenager.
Among the most consistent supporting players in the Europa League, Albert Sambi Lokonga capitalized on this last chance to impress, creating Saka’s goal with a fine through ball, although the England winner had a touch of luck that his initially blocked effort ricocheted off his chest and into.
Lokonga, like most Gunners assistants, knows that with Arteta’s first XI in such flying form, there’s not much you can do on a Thursday night right now to justify a starting spot on Sunday. . Still, losing Thomas Partey to injury has cost Arsenal dearly in each of the past two seasons and Lokonga’s displays when called up so far this term offer some hope that they could be better placed to deal with this eventuality should it occur this time around.
Aspmyra Stadium seats less than a fifth of Bodo’s 50,000 residents, but everyone you spoke to in town throughout the day seemed to have a ticket. Some didn’t need it, watching from the balconies of the building leaning against one end of the field.
Four walls of yellow, they were, unsurprisingly, relentlessly rowdy throughout one of the biggest nights in the club’s history, although they were at their loudest when they got up to lament Amahl Pellegrino’s glaring miss in the first half, with the striker squeezing wide when put clean through.
That chance aside, Arsenal had made it through the opening period but were briefly under pressure early in the second as first Ola Solbakken and then Runar Espejord squandered excellent openings.
The home crowd felt an equalizer was coming, but Arteta was just as alert and turned to more of his big guns, with the introductions of Granit Xhaka and Gabriel Martinelli struggling for control.