Are Arsenal still genuine Champions League contenders?
As the group stages are drawn in Monaco, Arsenal are always in it, but can they actually win it?
There were quite a few moments last season when it looked highly unlikely that Arsenal would be included in the Champions League group-stage draw which takes place later today.
Right until the closing moments of the season, with the Gunners clinging on to a 3-2 win at The Hawthorns to ensure third place, their participation was in the balance. Fourth place, as Tottenham found out to their cost, was not to prove good enough on this occasion.
So, for a 15th successive season, Arsenal will enter Europe’s premier competition, and will find out their three group opponents after what is sure to be a lengthy and unnecessary ceremony at Monaco’s Grimaldi Forum.
As has been the case for the last eight years, Arsenal will again be among the top seeds, the eight teams in Europe regarded as the elite, two of whom will probably contest’s May’s final at Wembley.
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However, now that Chelsea have engraved their name on the famous trophy back in May, Arsenal stand out as the only one of those top seeds not to have lifted the European Cup.
On the face of it, that looks a statistic that is unlikely to change this season. Although Chelsea defied the odds and, at times, all logic, to win it in May, they have gone close many times before.
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Arsenal did so, of course, in 2006 after reaching the final in Paris only to lose with 10 men to Barcelona, but despite always reaching the knockout stages –something that was beyond both Manchester clubs last season - in the six years since, they have seldom looked like potential winners.
Arsene Wenger would argue long and hard about the injustices in quarter-finals against Liverpool in 2008 and Barcelona in 2011, but the Gunners’ European campaigns have had a familiar feel to them in recent years: coast fairly comfortably out of the group and then suffer a brave but usually predictable defeat in the knockout rounds.
Last season was a case in point. After winning a difficult group that included Borussia Dortmund and Marseille, Arsenal were unluckily paired with AC Milan in the round of 16 and thrashed 4-0 in the first leg at San Siro.
That was a night of utter humiliation for Wenger, and for some of the Arsenal players, which included Thierry Henry in the last game of his mid-season loan spell from New York Red Bulls.
Although the 3-0 victory in the second leg saved face, it only served to underline how abject that first leg had been. At Europe’s top table, there are no second chances in the knockout stages. Milan were sent packing by Barcelona in the next round, and the last four was completed by familiar heavyweights: Chelsea, Real Madrid and Bayern.
Will this season be any different? The departure of Robin van Persie hardly suggests so, with Manchester United looking a lot stronger with the Dutchman on board. Manchester City will be desperate to improve on their dismal debut showing, whereas the two Spanish giants, Bayern and the Italians at Milan and Juventus will also be expected to challenge in the latter stages.
Many of the clubs in the draw are familiar, although Wenger may find himself facing different opposition from his homeland with French champions Montpellier and mega-rich Paris St Germain joining the party.
PSG, like Manchester City, will have designs on a glorious tilt at the trophy but, no matter how much qualifying for this tournament still means to a club’s stature, it seems that merely taking part – and taking the vast sums of money involved – is the summit of most club’s ambitions. This season, that may include Arsenal.