Emile Smith Rowe made his first appearance since September in our 3-0 FA Cup win over Oxford United on Monday night, following his recovery from groin surgery.
Our 22-year-old forward came on as a 75th-minute substitute for Bukayo Saka, as our Gunners booked a place in the FA Cup fourth round.
Speaking to the media after the final whistle, Smith Rowe said: "It’s really good to be back on the pitch with my teammates. It's been difficult being out for this long - I don’t think I've had this [long a lay-off] before - but at the same time, we are top of the league and playing really well, so I can’t complain! I am just going to kick on from here."
Smith Rowe described his lengthy absence from the squad through injury as "tough", but credited the support he received from our squad as invaluable.
"The whole team was around me. [Arteta] really helped me and obviously, I had my family back home supporting me. So it was really tough, but I managed to get through it and I'm just happy I’m fully fit now."
Boss Mikel Arteta has previously spoken about keeping Smith Rowe close to the squad in order to expedite his recovery.
"I was pretty much with them from the start after surgery. I was in all the meetings, trying to keep up with the knowledge and learnings every day that we needed to apply in training.
"It has been much easier than I thought. I am just happy to be back now," he added.
When asked whether his injury came at an especially unlucky time considering a spot in Gareth Southgate's England squad for the World Cup was potentially on the cards, the 22-year-old had few regrets.
"Obviously, you always want to play for your country. But at the same time, I had to do what was right for my body. I am still young, so I will keep working hard to get more opportunities for the national team. But right now, I just need to focus on Arsenal and getting some more minutes.
The groin injury that set him back at the beginning of this season has been a long-standing affliction for Smith Rowe, since his loan spell with RB Leipzig in 2019.
"A lot of people might not know, but I have had this injury since I was 18/19. It has been quite hard to deal with it over the years. But I am really happy that it is just finally over. I had a successful surgery and I am really feeling really good."
Looking ahead to the North London Derby away at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Smith Rowe has fond memories of the encounter in 2021 which saw him bag a goal and an assist in a 3-1 win over our local rivals.
"I can’t wait and the lads can’t wait as well. I am sure we will do well. I think it would be massive for us and it couldn’t come at a better time.
"We are feeling really good at the moment. All the boys know what it means to play in these kinds of games. We are all going to rest up now and get ready for it."
"I've been itching to get out there and play with the boys," he said. "I hope I can make an impact and I hope we can have a great rest of the season."
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