Antonio Adan injected late entertainment into an otherwise dreary game of football, clinching the opening International Champions Cup game in Singapore on penalties.
It felt a just end to a game that flattered to deceive, rewarding fans with an exciting shoot-out, but the irony lies in the fact that the crowd was nearly entirely a partisan Arsenal support. There were moments to savour for both sides, nonetheless, and it was a solid run-out.
Arsenal dominated possession for most of the game, an expected outcome given Atletico had fielded an XI composed of youngsters. They tested the excellent Jan Oblak continually in the first half with some nifty build-up, but Luciano Vietto scored against the run of play, heading a fizzing Angel Correa cross past Bernd Leno.
Emile Smith-Rowe, the impressive 17-year-old, equalised post half-time, drifting in from the left and curling it past substitute Adan.
As both sides rolled in the changes after the hour mark, the game petered into a full-time draw. Adan then turned hero, making three saves and converting the winning penalty with style to seal victory on his club debut.
Smith-Rowe was certainly Arsenal’s brightest spark in the game and, although he was an unknown prior to the tour, he’s quietly been impressive. Emery’s praise led into a start for the 17-year old, and he didn’t look out of place.
Confident on the ball, he dropped back in midfield at times, and some of his runs were beautiful to watch. It was clear that he loves to run with the ball, slaloming and gliding past defenders.
His first half was excellent, and he was rewarded with a lovely goal of his own. It is still pre-season, but Smith-Rowe has been one of the finds. He announced himself to an audience that might not know Arsenal’s academy prospects with calm.
Emery effect becoming clear
For the large part, Arsenal were solid. Emery’s emphasis on pressing was clear from the get go, with constant pressure on Atletico’s defenders in the initial stages. It allowed them to remain incisive, not only through Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but also Reiss Nelson on the right.
Rob Holding was secure where Shkodran Mustafi had one nervous error, but it perhaps the performance of Matteo Guendouzi that has the best cause for optimism.
The new signing from Lorient was a constant thorn, dropping deep between the centre-backs, but also picking Nelson and Lacazette with weighted passes. He did his job well, a good sign ahead of a busy season.
Making do with what you have
Atletico, on the other hand, were as expected: defending resolutely and, at times, desperately. With a makeshift XI, they acquitted themselves well enough. Correa constantly nagged at Arsenal, but in general little can be drawn from this game for Atletico given their depth.
This is more an exercise in understanding top-level football for the plethora of youngsters and a matter of fitness for the pros. In a pre-season game, the real winners are those who build up fitness while avoiding injuries.
From that perspective, Atletico and Arsenal would both be satisfied with a solid 90 minutes.
A must-see event?
One concern, in the wider picture, was the surprising low turn-out - relatively speaking. About 23,000 turned up in a stadium whose capacity is around 50,000. While it was a Thursday evening, it is evidence that the ICC remains a novelty, rather than a must-see event.
It might be fun, but it’s rarely memorable and the atmosphere was drab for the most part. What Singapore needs is a major European club to come - one of the two Manchester clubs, Liverpool, Barcelona or Real Madrid - for the ICC to count here.
Arsenal vs Paris Saint-Germain on Saturday should be the litmus test for turnout rates here, but the bottom line remains: the ICC is an exhibition, and will always be one. It’s fun, but it doesn’t feel real.
Arsenal wrap up their Singapore leg on Saturday vs PSG, while Atletico enjoy the weekend before finishing off versus the same opponents on Monday.
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