The Arsenal manager, Jonas Eidevall, had said that the team’s Champions League group stage opener against the reigning champions, Lyon, would be a “reality check to see where we’re at.”
The small contingent of travelling Gunners fans could be forgiven for thinking they had stepped into an alternate reality: where they were “at” was in seventh heaven, as the Ballon d’Or runner-up, Beth Mead, and Australian forward Caitlin Foord both scored twice in a 5-1 demolition of the tournament’s most successful side.
It was the first time Lyon had lost by a four-goal margin since April 2006 and the first time that they had conceded five since 2005.
Sonia Bompastor, the Lyon manager, said her team had not been “killers” or “efficient” against a team “as good as Arsenal,” adding that her side needed to analyse and focus on the lessons they can learn from the bruising defeat.
“Many players remain off and we need to cope with that,” she said of a hefty injury list. “We need to draw the lessons, analyse and from the mental side we need to build trust to beat Juventus next week.”
After navigating qualifying, there were fears for Arsenal when they were placed in Group C with Lyon, a fast-developing Juventus side managed by the former Arsenal manager Joe Montemurro and the Swiss champions, FC Zürich.
“It is a special night”, said Eidevall after the win in France. “We were very effective tonight, but as I told the players after, they worked extremely hard to carry out the gameplan and looked after the details, when you do that sometimes these things happen.
“You’re not entitled to play like this every game you play, it starts with your preparation, with the way you train, with the belief in the gameplan and you have to do that every game, nothing comes for free in football, you’re not entitled to anything.”
Arsenal had not managed a single win against a French team in Europe prior to their trip to Lyon. In eight matches against Ligue 1 teams, the Gunners had lost six times and drawn twice.
In front of a disappointingly small crowd of 8,012 at the Groupama Stadium, Bompastor made several changes, but Lyon were able to field a very strong starting XI regardless.
Eidevall has his own injury worries, with the England captain, Leah Williamson, and her first-choice centre-back partner, Rafaelle Souza, both out. Vivianne Miedema was on the bench and the scorer of Arsenal’s second, Frida Maanum, who Eidevall would describe as “brilliant” after the match, was on in her place.
It took 13 minutes for the Gunners to deliver the first blow, and they deserved their lead. The captain, Kim Little, released Mead into space on the right and the forward delivered a neat cross for Foord to convert at the back post.
Ten minutes later, Arsenal doubled their lead, the forward Stina Blackstenius darting in from the left and forcing a fine save from the outstretched foot of Christiane Endler, but Maanum was there to side-foot in the rebound.
The makeshift central defensive partnership of Lotte Wubben-Moy and Steph Catley would fall short not long after when Lindsey Horan turned a corner off the crossbar with her thigh and Melvine Malard pounced quickest to poke in from close range, but it was a blip in an overall strong showing.
By half-time Eidevall’s side had restored their two-goal cushion. The Lyon captain, Wendie Renard, was penalised for a foul on Blackstenius and Mead swept the resulting free-kick around the wall and past Endler, who got a hand to the ball but could not keep it out.
If there were any fiery words said in the home dressing room at half-time in a bid to up the intensity of the team’s performance, there was little evidence of it on the pitch after the break, with Arsenal gifted space all over.
They were rewarded for their dominance in the 67th minute when Foord intercepted a rogue pass from Renard across the front of the box before blasting past Endler. A minute later it was five, with Maanum releasing Mead and the Euro 2022 golden boot winner sweeping home.
Did they fear Lyon? “We were actually quite chilled about the game,” said Mead. “There was no expectation on us this evening, and sometimes you can relish in those moments.” Now, they will have to manage sky-high expectations.