Arsenal beat Cardiff on the difficult night when Emiliano Sala was supposed to make his debut

Arsenal 2-1 Cardiff City: Lacazette's strike proved decisive, with Nathaniel Mendez-Laing’s late goal giving the visiting fans something to celebrate on a difficult evening

Luke Brown
Emirates Stadium
Tuesday 29 January 2019 22:51
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Fans gather in Nantes Royal Square to lay yellow tulips during vigil for Emiliano Sala

They remained long after the final whistle, as the lights began to flicker and the rest of the stadium stood still. And then, after one final chant in honour of their missing forward, Emiliano Sala, Cardiff’s travelling supporters wrapped their scarves back around their necks, folded away their banners and flags, and traipsed slowly towards the exits.

They had stayed to celebrate Nathaniel Mendez-Laing's late goal, to honour the courage of their players and manager and to pay their respects to the forward who was not there. At the sound of the full-time whistle, Cardiff’s red-faced players did not disappear down the tunnel as they usually would after a cruel 2-1 defeat in the biting cold. Instead, they solemnly applauded their supporters, Callum Paterson even climbing into the crowd, united in this particularly difficult shared grief.

“They really handed it well,” a visibly drained Neil Warnock smiled in his post-match press conference. “The fans have been a touch of class throughout this, outstanding. I thought the Arsenal fans were good as well. On a night like tonight, you have to say well done to the fans.”

For the second time this season, the pause button has been pressed on Cardiff’s immediate footballing concerns, amid a backdrop of tragedy. The club hosted Leicester City’s first match after the death of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, another day when the football seemed so suddenly irrelevant. It was the same here: a rain-soaked night when those who had braved the elements could pay tribute to Sala and pilot David Ibbotson, who are both feared dead after the plane they were on vanished over the English Channel eight days ago.

There will be time for Cardiff to rue Mike Dean’s woeful decision not to award Oumar Niasse a first-half penalty, after he was tripped by a lumbering Nacho Monreal. There will be time to rue Bruno Manga’s moment of mindlessness later in the evening, when he sent Sead Kolasinac sprawling and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rolled home the subsequent spot kick. And there will be time to rue the ease with which Alexandre Lacazette strolled through their defence to add a late second.

It was to prove decisive. Mendez-Laing's goal, while well taken, came far too late.

Cardiff, whose players spent last week attending counselling sessions, battled manfully throughout and probably deserved a point. But for tonight at least, that seemed largely irrelevant.

Some two hours before la ultima ciao, there had been a moment of silent reflection. Not remembrance. In keeping with the wishes of Sala’s family, there were no black armbands on display, not while the search for their son continues. Instead, all of the club’s players and staff wore daffodils.

Alexandre Lacazette reacts after taking a knock during the first half

Ahead of kick-off the stadium fell briefly silent, in a collective prayer for his return. Cardiff’s players thought of a team-mate they had never played with; their supporters thought of a footballer they never had the privilege to watch play. Slowly, the silence was punctuated by awkward applause. “You are our bluebird, Sala,” read one glistening Cardiff shirt that was held aloft in the damp night sky, shortly before it began to snow. “Allez Nantes,” somebody else had scrawled onto a flag.

Finally, Dean’s whistle blew. Cardiff may have lined up with a full compliment of eleven players, but there was a glaring hole in the heart of their attack. This was supposed to be Sala’s debut. The match he had been dreaming of since signing the contract that made him the most expensive player in Cardiff’s history.

His name still appeared in the match programme, albeit next to a small daffodil, rather than a squad number. Arsenal struck the right tone throughout, playing their impossible role with class and sensitivity. But football, like life, can be cruel. And an Arsenal team pressing hard for fourth could not afford to spare Cardiff any sentimentality.

Joe Bennett tries his luck with a free kick

They started at a terrific pace. Mesut Ozil, finally returning to Arsenal’s starting line up with the captain’s armband around his arm, made his first telling contribution before even touching the ball: his exquisite dummy helping to set up Lacazette, whose fierce shot was blocked. But then the moment of indecision from Dean which was to rob Cardiff of the chance to take the lead.

Haring through on goal, Niasse tripped over the outstretched leg of Monreal, before being bumped to the ground by Kolasinac for good measure. It looked like a stonewall penalty and Dean took his time before waving away the protests. As if to make amends, he then ignored Arsenal’s frantic appeals down the other end, after Manga had dived in rashly on Lacazette. Again — it was a penalty.

Two terrible decisions in the space of two minutes.

Fans hold up yellow banners and a Nantes scarf in honour of Cardiff City’s missing player Emiliano Sala

Fittingly enough, it took a penalty to open the scoring. Midway through the second-half, substitute Alex Iwobi picked out the run of Kolasinac, who was hacked down by the hapless Manga. This time even Dean could not fail to spot the infringement and Aubameyang was on hand to nervelessly roll the ball into the left corner.

Late on, Lacazette made sure of the win with a fine individual goal. This time Sol Bamba was the defender at fault, jumping in to dispossess Lacazette on the touchline only to fail to win the ball. Up popped the Frenchman, who waltzed through Cardiff’s non-existent defence before drilling one into the far corner.

The game won, the frozen home fans turned for the exits. But Cardiff’s vocal travelling army deserved something to celebrate and were on their feet when Mendez-Laing twisted and turned in the box, lashing home a vicious low strike past Bernd Leno. A moment to celebrate on the most difficult of nights.

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