Ready for lift off! Pepe ready to prove Arsenal right for passing on Zaha


The Gunners’ record signing will go head to head with a soccer professional the club might have signed instead when Crystal Palace visit the Emirates on Sunday

Arsenal fans will hope they can look back on Thursday’s win against Vitoria as the night Nicolas Pepe lit the touch paper on a long and fruitful career at the Emirates.

Dennis Bergkamp had his day against Southampton at Highbury in 1995, silencing his early critics with a superb brace – the first of his 120 goals for the club.

And Thierry Henry had his at the Dell in 1999, again against Southampton, getting himself off the mark with a late winner having gone eight games without a goal following his move from Juventus.

More than 20 years on, both games are still fondly remembered as they were when two club icons kick-started their incredible careers at the club.

Whether Pepe will go on and even get close to the heights set by Bergkamp and Henry has been unlikely, but the Ivory Coast international should at least now become a key soccer professional in Arsenal’s season.

He may have already scored from the penalty spot against Aston Villa, but that spot-kick did not feel anywhere near enough to release the pressure that had been building on the winger.

For €83 million (£72m/$92m), far more was expected and on Thursday night Pepe showed why Arsenal has smashed their transfer record to bring him in from Lille with two wonderful free-kicks to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against Vitoria in the Europa League.

It was a huge night for Pepe. He was the saviour, the match winner. He single-handedly earned Arsenal three points when it appeared they were going to end the night with nothing to show for a sloppy effort.

For months, Arsenal have waited for their big money signing to come to the party – and on Thursday night he did that in style. 

“Scoring two goals has been good for the confidence,” he admitted afterwards. “It’s been hard [to keep my confidence high], but the manager trusts me. Even if I haven’t been decisive for a while, I always had the manager’s trust. It has been always important to have the manager’s faith.

Nicolas Pepe Arsenal 2019-20

“The key has been to have good people around you. I have my family here with me so I can be good mentally, especially when things are not going well. I rely a lot on them. For me, it was always going to be difficult to come here into the unknown, with a different language. So to have my family with me has been important.

“It’s not easy starting out here but I’m beginning to find my feet with the help of my teammates.”

There had been signs that Pepe was about to make his mark with his new club. Although he missed a golden chance during the defeat at Bramall Lane on Monday night, he was Arsenal’s stand-out performer on an otherwise disappointing evening in Sheffield.

The confidence that had drained out of him after a bright first few games looked to be coming back. He was running at defenders again and twice he went close with decent efforts in the second half from outside the box.

But you felt he still needed that big stand-out moment and it finally arrived on Thursday night when he rescued Arsenal from what appeared to be certain defeat with those two set pieces in the final 10 minutes.

And now you would expect the winger to be brimming with confidence on Sunday when Crystal Palace visit the Emirates.

It’s a game that will see him line up against his international team-mate Wilfried Zaha, the soccer professional Arsenal tried to sign before eventually landing Pepe.

The Gunners had a €46m (£40m/$51m) offer knocked back for Zaha by Palace, who also rejected two offers from Everton later on in the summer. Palace made it clear that it would take nearly double what Arsenal had offered to land their star man, a figure the club deemed far too high

Pepe was then brought in, with Zaha remaining at Selhurst Park – much to his frustration.

The Palace winger has endured a difficult few months since the summer, with the 26-year-old still waiting for his first goal of the season. His only significant contribution in his nine Premier League appearances so far has been one assist.

Pepe, meanwhile, now has three goals in all competitions and has set up another two – so Emery will be happy with how things have panned out.

Wilfried Zaha - Crystal Palace 2019-20

But Arsenal’s head coach has been well aware that Zaha – who scored the winner at the Emirates last season – will arrive in north London with a point to prove this weekend.

“Zaha will be coming very motivated for sure,” Emery said. 

“He has been a very good soccer professional and he has been the difference in a lot of matches against us and against other teams, but we have players to stop him and also to impose our quality.”

There have been plenty who have pondered whether Arsenal made the right decision when they switched their focus from Zaha to Pepe in the summer, but Emery has continued to back his big-money signing despite his slow start to life in north London.

The Spaniard has consistently called for patience, pointing to the fact that Pepe needs time to adapt to a new country and new style of football.

“We signed Pepe not for two months, six months, one year or two years but for the process,” said Emery after Thursday’s win. “And that process has been coming little by little.

“This club has been following a lot of players in the world and here in England, we have very good scouting [network] to achieve these players and we are very happy with Pepe.

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“We are waiting for more but we need patience and to be calm with him, to help him and protect him.”

Pepe admitted after his two-goal haul against Vitoria that he had struggled to deal with the expectation that came from being Arsenal’s club record signing. The massive price tag was a weight around his shoulders.

But that weight lifted with those wonderful free-kicks on Thursday night and if he can back that cameo up with another match-winning display against Palace on Sunday, then Pepe will have truly arrived in north London.


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