Champions League – In It to Win It or Just Enjoy the Show?

The competition for Europe’s top club accolade has taken on more than a passing semblance of a nursery during playtime of late.

A kid bigger than you has taken possession of bucket and spade whilst you both sit in the sandpit. Without the aforementioned sand-digging equipment, you are left prone and with the sandiest of fingers. You look around for another activity to amuse yourself with until it’s time for milk and cookies. Yet another child who has a larger physical stature has the fire engine. YOU want that fire engine. Will you be able to go toe-to-toe with him? Last time resulted in a Lego Brick hurled at you and being dumped unceremoniously on your nappy-clad behind. You won’t be trying that again.

You are surrounded by colleagues who dominate playtime. Whatever shape your whim moulds to, you can rest assured that there will be another who has their grubby mitts clasped greedily around it.

The Champions League is that nursery. Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid are those big kids and thanks to an influx of cash, more big kids are on their way. Playtime is over for Arsenal.

The European Cup is the Premiere spectacle. Like a glitzy party in the centre of town, those that are on the outside are left to look longingly at the inside. The guestlist is illustrious and if you can only get in, you will be viewed more positively by association.

Regarding that, Arsenal are faultless. An ever present since 1997, If the Champions League was a presence record at school, only Real Madrid could be awarded a better shiny sticker. Is being part of the competition enough though? Shouldn’t all this gleaned experience be beneficial and thus give Arsenal the edge when it comes to the cut and thrust of the knockout stages?
On the evidence of our first two group games, it is quite apparent that the lessons doled out to us in previous campaigns have been lost on us.  Looking at results over the last five years, the answer is an emphatic no. The Last 16 has been the roof that has been placed on the Gunners’ aspirations in Europe of late. We’ll be overachieving if we make it that far this season, as we sit without any points & bottom of the group. 

An Ibrahimovic-inspired AC Milan, Bayern Munich twice, and Barcelona twice have put paid to Arsene Wenger’s attempts to lift the European Cup. That is surely not enough if Arsenal are viewed as one of the powerhouses of European football?

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It is a viable argument that when Arsenal faced these opponents, they were at the peak of their powers, surefire candidates to win the entire competition ( Barcelona and Bayern did indeed go on to win the tournament ). Indeed, they were a far stronger outfit and it was a credit to our team that we made it so tight an affair after two legs.  Should that be the summit of our dreams though? Will we never see the moment an Arsenal Skipper climbs the stairs in a major stadia in Europe to eventually grab the shiniest of trophies with the infamously large handles?

Last season could have been our opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with those bigger kids. Monaco were our opponents and it was perceived that – seeing as our last four attempts to get to the Quarter-Finals were blocked by giants of the game – Monaco would be a far simpler passage. Yet a disturbing trend became evident.

On the first leg, much like our brave but futile ties in the last four years in the Champions League, we decided that we would award our opponents with a headstart. We like a chase, we’re good enough to catch them. Monaco looked far more dangerous and despite a hatful of chances, we clung desperately onto a late Oxlade-Chamberlain goal as a dim hope of progression. We had been executed with precision and sucker-punched with tactics. Again. 

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With our painful defeats to Zagreb & Olympiacos thus far, it would appear we have not taken heed in regard to our tactical approach.

Once again, in Monaco, our pattern for being put out at the Last 16 was clear. Our Second Leg performance was high-tempo, it was swashbuckling, but ultimately, it was not enough and too late thanks to our woeful First Leg. It was our best chance for progression in years but we were unable to exorcise the demons of habit.  Can we as a club though, demand that we are entitled to better?
Yes, to put it simply. We have one of the largest fanbases in the world. We boast of some of the healthiest finances in world football and our stadium is admired throughout Europe. We can boast of world-class talent such as Sanchez, Ozil, Cazorla and Cech. Does this mean Wenger has underperformed on the highest stage?

Even Wenger will admit that we should have won the European Cup when his team were at the peak of their powers. The fact that the Invincibles didn’t win the Champions League will still rankle with the Arsenal manager. The competition was far more open back then and there was no stranglehold from other teams. Now, it couldn’t be more different.

Arsenal and Wenger must start to perform on the European stage. The defeat to Dynamo Zagreb was alarming, but it can be viewed as an anomaly. If that insipid performance were to continue however, then alarm bells will ring as shrill as the voices from the stands demanding better.

Domestically, it is assumed that Arsenal have turned a corner somewhat. With their purchases in recent years, the Gunners can now muscle in on Chelsea, City et al and finally contend for the title. Yet for years, Arsenal fought for European qualification. Why? It is common knowledge that the revenue stream earned through Champions League appearances is mandatory for the balance sheets. Whilst the spectacle of facing off against the cream of the continent is what fans should want and enjoy, if there is no chance of contending, what is the point?

Being cannon fodder for Messi, Suarez, Muller and Ronaldo cannot be a glass roof. To stand up and be able to put these players and teams in their place has to be the target. The foundation for Arsenal is there. The next two seasons needs to show a push at the Premiership, but also, a season where the Last 16 is not the end of their European adventure.

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The big kids will always be there, so it is time get out of the sandbox and stand up for ourselves.

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