Arsenal’s first Champions League trip for seven years descended into farce – despite Lens being nearer to London than Manchester. The players were sat in Luton’s private terminal for five hours ahead of their clash with the French club, who are based just 170 miles away and roughly 30 miles nearer to the Emirates than Manchester.
Although there were a steady stream of departures all afternoon, storms prevents certain aircraft from taking off. The players had reported to the airport at 3.30pm ahead of an anticipated 4.15pm departure. Mikel Arteta was due to conduct a press conference at 6pm local time (7pm UK).
In the end, meals had to be sent from the club’s training ground so the players could eat dinner before finally their chartered flight finally got underway. The only preparation they are likely to get is a brief stretch of their legs on Tuesday morning before the clash with the Ligue 1 side.
The further irony is that a direct train from London takes just 90 minutes to get to Lille, the base for most of the 2,000 fans staying over after the game.
In principle, UEFA prefer clubs to train at the venue, but even under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal were one of the first teams to habitually choose instead to use their own training facilities. However, as with Newcastle, who were late into Milan for their match-day one fixture a fortnight ago, Arsenal are likely to escape with a warning from the football authorities as it is their first offence.
Most important, though, is that the disruption does not get in the way of the positive start to Arsenal’s campaign which began with the 4-0 win over PSV. In a hastily-arranged conference call from Luton, centre-back William Saliba told reporters who had managed to make it to Lens: “I can’t wait to play in France so it is a good feeling.
“It’s difficult not knowing what is going on, maybe because it is raining in France or England so we couldn’t fly and we are still in London. But of course it will not affect us. We have to arrive first but tomorrow is another day and we will give our best against Lens.
“We always have confidence. We know it won’t be an easy game. It is a really good team who finished second last season. They didn’t start well but in the last two or three games, they are better so we have to be focused on tomorrow and give our best.”
The Arsenal squad has at least been boosted by the return of Thomas Partey, who has not played since the Fulham win on August 26, although Gabriel Martinelli remained back in London. “His progression in the last week has been very good,” Arteta added in a separate call.
“He might have some exposure tomorrow depending how the game goes. He’s a big player and we know what he brings to the team, so it’s great to have him back again.”