LONDON — Arsenal barely advanced to the round of 16 of the Europa League thanks to a thundering first-half goal from Kieran Tierney, which propelled them to a nerve-wracking 1-0 win over a combative Zurich side.
It only took three points for Mikel Arteta’s squad to secure the first position, and with it, a bye through what is building up to be a hard knockout phase for the clubs that finished in second place in this competition’s group stage and third place in the Champions League. One might have thought that any group of red and white players would have easily dominated the team that finished last in the Swiss league, but a team that included players such as Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel, and Aaron Ramsdale had to work hard to earn three points against an opponent who was not afraid to leave their mark on the Gunners.
Arsenal started the game in a nervous manner beneath the cloud caused by the six flares that were let off in the Zurich end of the stadium. Early on, the away team was awarded a number of corners, which provided them with a glimmer of optimism that they might be able to secure the victory that would catapult them into the Europa Conference League. In the end, however, they lacked the finesse to seriously test their hosts in the final third, even though Aaron Ramsdale was forced to make a smart stop after Jonathan Okita’s strike deflected off Mohamed Elneny.
After Fabio Vieira’s first attempt had been blocked, Tierney scored a goal for Arsenal by hammering it in from outside the penalty area. At that point, Arsenal was already in the lead. The left-back, who was once dubbed a future club captain, has battled to establish himself in Mikel Arteta’s Premier League XI this season. Ramsdale came storming up to the halfway line to embrace his friend, which is a testament to the closeness that this group has established.
The outstanding goalkeeping of Yanick Brecher kept Arsenal in the game after the halftime break when they very easily should have been eliminated. Eddie Nketiah was already celebrating his goal-bound header when he was thwarted by a diving parry. The goalkeeper made the save. Gabriel Jesus, on the other hand, has now gone six games without scoring after the goalkeeper for Zurich made himself just big enough to parry the Brazilian’s sidefooted effort with his bicep.
Arsenal’s main concern was not so much that PSV Eindhoven was coasting to victory at Bodo/Glimt, but rather that while there was a glimmer of hope for Zurich, the visitors would fight tooth and nail for every inch, sometimes very literally. This was a source of concern for Arsenal. After Nikola Boranijasevic took a significant portion of Tierney’s jersey far before the final whistle, which is the more typical occasion for the exchange of garments, Tierney had to change into a new jersey.
There was no indication that Zurich and their rowdy fans were in any hurry for the match to reach its conclusion. This was the previous incarnation of the Emirates when everyone was nervous and prepared for the worst. When Ramsdale parried Antonio Marchesano’s attempt out to Adrian Guerrero, who tapped home the rebound, it appeared for a split second that it had come when it appeared that it had come. Even the lowest team that Switzerland’s top league had to offer managed to pull off an upset over the top team in England’s Premier League. The offside flag that was awarded to Jo de Weird was manna from heaven.
Even with the addition of four of Arsenal’s most talented players — including Bukayo Saka, who made a speedy recovery from the injury he sustained against Nottingham Forest on Sunday — Zurich’s late exuberance could not be quelled. Bohdan Viunnyk’s long-range shot went well wide as crosses were sent into an Arsenal penalty area that was once more obscured by the smoke that was being produced by the opposing team’s end. Up until the very end, this was far tougher than it ever should have been, and the game’s concluding act was a free kick from wide that was deflected over the crossbar.
The victory was won, but not without a price being paid. First, Takehiro Tomiyasu’s injury fifteen minutes after arriving on the field caused the Japanese people’s hearts to race in anticipation of the World Cup. Then, while trying to prevent a break for Zurich, Tierney took a severe blow to his ankle, which ultimately ended up costing him the match. Arsenal should just about have the numbers to cope with Chelsea on Saturday, since Oleksandr Zinchenko has returned to the squad, and Ben White is in fantastic form; nonetheless, they will need to be better than they were today. Nevertheless, at least they were able to eliminate two potential games from this already exhausting schedule.