Cardiff’s first fixture since the disappearance of the aeroplane carrying striker Emiliano Sala finished in a 2-1 loss at Arsenal but the scoreline scarcely mattered.
The missing Sala and pilot David Ibbotson were remembered throughout a sombre evening in north London, played out in torrential rain.
Cardiff, in the relegation zone, threatened an upset by seizing on the Gunners’ defensive uncertainty, but Nathaniel Mendez-Laing’s stoppage-time strike came too late.
Unai Emery’s side prevailed through Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s second-half penalty and Alexandre Lacazette’s solo strike to move level on points with fourth-placed Chelsea.
Two days after Sala’s transfer to Cardiff in a £15million deal from Nantes, the Piper PA-46 Malibu plane carrying the Argentinian striker and Ibbotson disappeared over the English Channel.
An official search was called off last Thursday, but funds have since been raised to conduct a private exploration.
Tributes at the Emirates Stadium included a daffodil by Sala’s name on the matchday programme, the Bluebirds’ mascot Daffyd wearing a shirt sporting the striker’s name and supporters’ banners.
The biggest read: ‘We never saw you play and never saw you score, but Emiliano our beautiful Bluebird we will love you forever more’.
Cardiff boss Neil Warnock on Monday admitted he had questioned his own future in the wake of the tragedy, which he described as “by far the most difficult week” of his 40-year career in football management.
The Bluebirds’ most recent fixture was a 3-0 loss at Newcastle on January 19. Warnock made three changes, while Arsenal made seven following last Friday’s FA Cup loss to Manchester United.
Mesut Ozil was named Gunners captain on his first start since Boxing Day. His only appearance in the intervening month was as a second-half substitute against United and he did little to justify his inclusion.
Defensive reinforcements were required following the injuries to Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Laurent Koscielny, who wrote movingly of tragedy and football in his matchday programme notes, referring to the Paris terror attacks of November 2015.
Stephan Lichtsteiner, Nacho Monreal and Shkodran Mustafi all came in, alongside goalkeeper Bernd Leno, Ozil, Mohamed Elneny and Matteo Guendouzi.
Not surprisingly, the Gunners were defensively vulnerable.
Bobby Reid fired just wide after Elneny failed to control a bouncing ball and soon afterwards headed over from Callum Paterson’s cross.
The Bluebirds wanted a penalty when Oumar Niasse went down in the box between Monreal and Sead Kolasinac, but referee Mike Dean dismissed appeals.
Arsenal’s defending of set-pieces was amateur and their attack was disjointed, the decisive pass, touch or cross repeatedly going to a player in blue.
The performance contrasted markedly with Arsenal’s previous Premier League game, the win over Chelsea.
Tempers frayed following a foul by Harry Arter on Guendouzi, but soon Arsenal had a penalty when Kolasinac was brought down in the left side of the area by Bruno Ecuele Manga. Aubameyang converted from the spot for his 18th goal of the season.
Neil Etheridge saved from half-time substitute Alex Iwobi moments later before Aaron Ramsey was introduced for Ozil and assumed the captain’s armband.
The Wales midfielder, apparently set to leave when his contract expires this summer, joined Arsenal from Cardiff in 2008 and the Bluebirds fans sang about “one of our own”. “He’s too good for you,” they added.
A solo goal from Lacazette sealed victory. The France striker had the ball up on the right, picked himself up after a Sol Bamba challenge and out-paced the Cardiff defender before firing in.
Ramsey headed narrowly wide before substitute Mendez-Laing curled in a low shot in stoppage time, which proved no more than consolation.