LONDON (Reuters) - In normal times a dead-rubber Europa League clash against Rapid Vienna on a cold evening in the build-up to Christmas would be a tough sell even to Arsenal diehards but Thursday's tie is perhaps the most eagerly-awaited of the season.
That is because, for the first time since March 7, fans will be allowed inside the Emirates stadium, even if it's only 2,000 of them.
With England emerging from national lockdown and London placed in the government's Tier 2 level of COVID-19 restrictions, Arsenal's match against Rapid will be the first involving any Premier League team to have fans present for a competitive fixture since the pandemic took hold.
Mikel Arteta's team are already qualified from Group B so the result is academic, but it will be a landmark night for the club's fans who, like those all over the country, have had to make do with cheering on their teams from the sofa.
Arsenal Supporters Trust board member Akhil Vyas will be amongst the lucky few on Thursday.
"If you told me a year ago I would be excited to go to a dead rubber in the Europa League with the weather changing, it's going to be cold, I would not have believed you," the 32-year-old told Reuters.
"The fact I'm really excited shows how much we miss football. We've lost three Premier League games in a row as well so there have been lots of jokes about they should pay us to go, but it's not about that, it's bigger than that.
"Football is a community, for many it's their family. I know many people out there who are suffering."
Vyas applauds the club's hasty preparations to welcome fans to the Vienna game when they perhaps might have been tempted to wait for the visit of Burnley on Dec. 13.
There will be 350 stewards working at the game, compared to around 50 for 'behind closed doors' games and 900 normally.
"Arsenal have done really well to get this game on," he said. "They will be making a loss but it's a good statement and shows government that clubs really want to get fans back in and they are willing to make a loss for a while.
"But 2,000 is not sustainable. I read that they will be making a loss of around half a million pounds on Thursday."
English clubs had hoped fans would have been allowed to return in limited numbers in October, but with infections rising again the government pressed the pause button.
With much of England in stricter Tier 3 restrictions, including Greater Manchester, the Midlands and the North East, many top-flight clubs are not allowed to welcome fans back yet.
While Thursday's match will not feel like a normal night, Arsenal manager Arteta said it was "extraordinary" to have fans back. It's going to feel strange. The club has done amazing work to try to facilitate everybody in short notice to be able to attend. I'm sure it will work really good."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge)
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