After comfortably completing the job against Fenerbahce on Tuesday evening, Arsenal can now looking forward to a 16th consecutive season in the group stages of the Champions League, where they have been drawn to face Marseille, Napoli as well as last season’s finalists, Borussia Dortmund, in Group F.
Challenging tests indeed which considering the Gunners’ lack of summer transfer business with just days to go until the window closes (though Mathieu Flamini’s long-mooted return on a free transfer has now been confirmed) has seen many Arsenal fans covering their eyes in fear at a potential failure to reach the last 16 for the first time since 1999.
Certainly, Dortmund and Napoli at least will provide Arsene Wenger’s men with extremely stern challenges, even if the embattled Frenchman does manage to secure some big-money signings to replenish his thin, injury-ravaged squad. Indeed, the draw probably represents Arsenal’s toughest for quite some time.
However, were the squad’s mass celebrations at St James’ Park last May, which caused as much mirth in many quarters as joy, in anticipation of playing the likes of Olympiakos, Montpellier and Schalke, their opponents in the group stages last year, before going out to the first real test they faced in the last 16?
Yes, Arsenal’s record of progressing from the group stages in recent seasons is fantastic but if Wenger and the club’s board are to continue selling a place in the Premier League’s top four as a ‘trophy’, then the supporters should be eagerly anticipating the continent’s leading teams coming to the Emirates, not fearing them in trepidation.
More significantly, one presumes that the end goal of qualifying the Champions League would be winning it, an achievement both Arsenal and Wenger have never secured. In order to even have a chance of it, the Gunners will have to beat the best teams at some stage. Indeed, there is even an argument that their early exits from the competition in recent years have been a direct consequence from their tame group stage performances, where poor opposition have been all too easily overcome.
Arsenal fans may also do well to remember that three quarters of their group actually met in the Champions League two seasons ago, where the Gunners (albeit led by a certain Robin Van Persie), comfortably finished as group winners above Marseille and Dortmund. Of course, the German outfit have come on considerably since then though they from that line-up, they will now be without Mario Gotze and Shinji Kagawa just as the Gunners will be without van Persie.
Three convincing victories on the trot since that disastrous opening-day league defeat to Villa has certainly raised spirits at the Emirates ahead of the North London derby with Tottenham on Sunday. For all the Lillywhites’ signings, the Gunners will remain confident of success in front of their own fans, having triumphed by 5-2 score lines in each of their last two home matches against their closest rivals.
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