The talk of the town was present at the National Stadium last night, but he played no part in Arsenal’s International Champions Cup (ICC) opener against Atletico Madrid.
All the 23,095-strong crowd got was a mere glimpse of Mesut Özil for just seven seconds – when the two big screens in the stadium zoomed in on him seated on the bench in the 71st minute.
The 29-year-old, who created a stir after announcing his retirement from the German national football team last Sunday, smiled and gave a thumbs-up, resulting in the loudest cheer of the night from the crowd, most of whom were Arsenal supporters.
But in Özil’s absence on the pitch, two teenage midfielders took full advantage of the limelight.
While 17-year-old Emile Smith Rowe and 19-year-old Mateo Guendouzi were unable to stop Arsenal from losing 3-1 to Atletico on penalties after a 1-1 draw in normal time, they certainly captivated and wowed those watching on.
Smith Rowe caused the Atletico defence all sorts of problems with his quick movement, scoring the equaliser with a terrific solo effort in the 47th minute after Luciano Vietto had given the Spanish side the lead just before half-time.
Guendouzi, one of Arsenal’s new summer signings, seemed remarkably composed in his defensive midfield role.
The Frenchman cut a bubble of confidence as he sprayed passes around with relative ease and calmly navigated his way through tight situations.
Speaking at the post-match conference, Arsenal head coach Unai Emery was full of praise for the teen duo.
“I think this moment is one moment for the young players to show quality,” explained the 46-year-old.
“We have to give young players the chance to work with us, and for them to show their quality in each match.”
“Today I think everyone played good in the game, and the goal scored by Smith Rowe was very good for him and for the team.”
The Spaniard added on Smith Rowe, “Today I am very happy with his work on the pitch. But not only today, but every day.”
“He is starting today because his performances are good in each training session.”
With the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the starring 11, Arsenal started the match brightly and on the front foot.
Their first chance arrived in the fourth minute when Aubameyang saw his volleyed effort from Reiss Nelson’s cross deflected narrowly wide of goal.
From the resulting corner, midfielder Ramsey, who was named Arsenal captain for the night, flashed a shot towards the side netting from a tight angle.
With the dynamic trio of Guendouzi, Smith Rowe, and Ramsey stamping their authority in midfield, Atletico struggled to retain possession and were content to sit back and invite pressure.
Arsenal should have taken the lead in the 22nd minute when Lacazette nicked the ball off an Atletico defender in the penalty area, and raced towards goal.
However, the French striker saw his low shot expertly palmed away by Atletico custodian Jan Oblak.
Lacazette was denied by Oblak once again on the half-hour mark, just moments after Shkodran Mustafi headed away Angel Correa’s goal-bound effort down the other end.
A frustrating first half for Lacazette was compounded when Oblak denied him for the third time with a superb reaction save from point-blank range, before Nelson blasted the rebound high and wide with the goal gaping.
In the cruellest of fashions, it was Atletico who took the lead in the 41st minute when Vietto headed in Correa’s pinpoint cross the right-flank.
It was a crushing blow for the Gunners, who were the dominant force for the majority of the opening 45 minutes.
However, if there ever was a goal to soften blows and get people off their seats, it arrived just two minutes after the restart.
Smith Rowe received the ball in midfield, glided his way past three Atletico defenders, and unleashed a rasping shot into the top-right hand corner from just outside the penalty area.
It was a moment of magic, made all the more special by the fact it was scored by an Arsenal academy graduate making his professional bow alongside more established stars.
Unfortunately, the wonder goal failed to set the tone for the remainder of the second half, with both sides hardly creating any chances of note.
There was plenty of drama in the penalty shootout that followed though.
Atletico’s substitute goalkeeper Antonio Adan, who joined the club earlier this month, pulled off some terrific saves to deny Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Joe Willock and Eddie Nketiah, although he could do nothing to stop a well-executed panenka penalty by Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
Although Atletico missed their first penalty when Correa’s low effort came crashing off the post, they sealed the deal after successful conversions by Rodri, Vallejo and Adan.
“I am happy, mainly because we had many young players playing,” said Atletico head coach Diego Simeone at the post-match conference.
“With the work of the past few days, we were able to incorporate what we have worked on for seven years, a very strong defensive structure.”
“I am happy for the youngsters because the first step is not as far as it seems, and dealing with Arsenal is not easy.”
“We competed very well tonight.”
Atletico Madrid’s starring line-up: Oblak, Juanfran (C), Montero, Thomas, Moya, Rodrigo, Olabe, Joaquín, Correa, Gameiro and Vietto.
Arsenal’s starring line-up: Leno, Bellerin, Mustafi, Holding, Kolasinac, Ramsey (C), Guendouzi, Smith Rowe, Nelson, Aubameyang and Lacazette
Paris Saint-Germain will face Arsenal and Atletico Madrid on Saturday and Monday respectively at the National Stadium.
Photos by Nigel Noah Chan of the DANAMIC Team.