There's no substitute for class. That's the lesson Western Sydney Wanderers learnt on Saturday against English Premier League giants Arsenal, who completed a comfortable 3-1 rout of the A-League club to show just why they are one of the most attractive football units in the world.
It followed the Wanderers' bold declaration that they would take the game to Arsenal and while the highlights reel and scoreboard suggested they were humbled, it was a performance that would fill Western Sydney's supporters with plenty of optimism heading into the new season.
They refused to accept their role as the Washington Generals in the face of Arsenal's $89 million signing, Alexandre Lacazette, nor his star-studded cast-mates at ANZ Stadium.
Western Sydney Wanderers' newly appointed captain Robert Cornthwaite promised to give Arsenal more of a test than Sydney FC had offered two days earlier and the towering defender was true to his word.
"This team looks more physical, more ready, more advanced physically than the opposition the other night," Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger said.
The Wanderers’ defensive unit was impressive by their standards, let alone during the early stages of pre-season, and already glimpses of a near-impenetrable phalanx surfaced.
"I thought it was a very impressive display by us considering there was so many new players… in particular in the first half, until they scored the first goal, as a unit we defended extremely well," Wanderers coach Tony Popovic.
A deep back line restricted Arsenal to probing chances but few breakthroughs, certainly fewer than what was expected after Lacazette's second-minute shot was saved by Vedran Janjetovic. It frustrated the visitors, so much so that midfielder Granit Xhaka reacted furiously to Wanderers midfielder Jacob Melling. While the hot-headed Swiss international is no stranger to afters, that he had to be held back against an A-League side in the 29th minute was no doubt fuelled by the fear of a humbling.
However, any hint of an upset was allayed after Olivier Giroud scored a classic centre-forward's goal in the 33rd minute. He turned in a Nacho Monreal cross with perfection to rattle the roof of the net.
Four minutes later and Arsenal found breathing space. Nacho Monreal was again the architect, splitting the Wanderers back line with a half-field-long pass to find the run of midfielder Aaron Ramsay. The Welsh international showed his class to lob Janjetovic and double the visitors' tally in elegant fashion.
The Gunners walked down the tunnel with a scoreline that perhaps flattered them after Mohamed Elneny's long-range strike was deflected into the net by Wanderers defender Brendan Hamill, a cruel finale for an otherwise impressive first half from Western Sydney.
If there was more than a hint of fortune in Elneny's goal, what was nearly his second was nothing but class. Just minutes after the restart, the centre-back unleashed a curling effort from 25-metres that left Janjetovic rooted to the ground and the Wanderers goalkeeper was nearly as rattled as the crossbar that all that prevented a fourth Arsenal goal.
However, it sparked Western Sydney into life and the home side came close to drawing one back in the 56th minute through the unlikely source of Jack Clisby. The Wanderers fullback came close to scoring against the club he supports with a fierce left-foot drive in the 56th minute.
The Wanderers had to wait just two minutes later to claw back into the contest. After being awarded an indirect free-kick inside the box for an Arsenal back pass, midfielder Steven Lustica smashed a rebound into the roof of the net to add more respect to the scoreboard.
While all the eyes were on Lacazette, the Wanderers unleashed two of their highly prized additions in former Aston Villa midfielder Chris Herd and marquee striker Oriol Riera. The latter was industrious, did the job coach Tony Popovic said he would in holding the ball up but much like last season, the lack of penetration from their attacking midfielders remained a constant. In his debut, Riera was largely stranded at the arrow-head of the Wanderers attack.
While he may still be a drawcard this season, on this night, Riera wasn't among the men 83,221 came to see. Substitute Theo Walcott was and the England international should have scored a fourth in the 80th minute, had it not been for a fine save from Janjetovic.
German Mesut Ozil struck the post from a free-kick in the dying minutes before a flurry of close chances couldn't be converted by the visitors as Western Sydney held on to a respectable defeat.