Arsenal must improve to have a chance against European heavyweights
Spanish glamour or German grit awaits Gunners in last 16
Arsenal know they will meet either Spanish or German opposition in the knockout round of the Champions League after the 3-1 victory over Partizan Belgrade was only enough to secure second place in Group H.
The Ukrainians Shakhtar Donetsk go though as group winners after their 2-0 defeat of Braga, leaving Arsenal facing one of three former winners in Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, or another German side, Schalke 04, when the draw for the last 16 is made on December 17.
However, Arsene Wenger was in bullish mood despite another nervy win from his side, who only secured the victory against pointless Partizan with late goals from Theo Walcott and Samir Nasri.
“There is a 50 per cent chance of travelling to Spain and a 50 per cent chance of travelling to Germany. If you ask me where would you like to go? I don’t know,” said Wenger afterwards. “You [the journalists] might prefer to go to Spain, for us not necessarily.
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“Let’s be realistic, Barcelona are the super-favourite at the moment but we take what we get and if it is Barcelona, it is Barcelona. We have played them already last year and we’ll see.”
Arsenal were beaten 4-1 by four Lionel Messi goals at the Nou Camp in the second leg of last season’s quarter-final with the Spanish champions, following a 2-2 draw in the first leg at the Emirates.
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The Gunners have never beaten the Catalans in the Champions League, including a defeat in the 2006 final in Paris, but Wenger is confident his side will have improved by the time the knockout stages commence in late February, whoever they are preparing to face.
“Overall we are in a strong position in the league, we are qualified in the Champions League, we are in the semi-final of the League Cup and we start the FA Cup in January,” added Wenger. “There are plenty of exciting challenges in front of us but there is room for improvement and I am confident we will improve.”
They will certainly need to play better than they did against Partizan, as there were a few jitters around the Emirates following the Serbian champions’ 52nd minute equaliser, when the Brazilian striker Cleo’s shot deflected off Sebastien Squillaci’s outstretched leg and looped over a stranded Lukasz Fabianski.
That cancelled out Arsenal’s lead first-half given to them by Robin van Persie’s penalty, a first goal of the season for the Dutchman after missing almost three months with an ankle problem.
At 1-1, a Braga goal in Donetsk would have seen the Gunners heading for unthinkable elimination, but Wenger’s replacing of the frustrating Andrey Arshavin midway through the second half with Walcott soon paid dividends, Walcott restoring the lead with a fine volley from the right-hand side of the box after Bacary Sagna’s cross was only partially cleared.
Nasri then scored his 12th goal in 17 games to make the game safe, sweeping home a shot after the move of the night involving another substitute, Nicklas Bendtner, and Alex Song.
But in a dramatic closing few minutes Sagna was shown a straight red card for tripping Alexander Lazevski on the edge of the area – and will miss the first leg of the last 16 tie - before Fabianski made a superb save from the resulting free-kick.
As it transpired, Braga’s defeat in Ukraine meant that Arsenal could have lost and still qualified, but a third home win inside eight days amounted to perfect preparation for the Premier League trip to Old Trafford on Monday night.
With European progress secured, Arsenal are now the only team in the country still fighting for silverware on all four fronts. Not exactly a club in crisis, then, even if the defence is still a major cause for concern.
But Arsenal fans are used to being in the last 16 – this is an 11th consecutive year at this stage – what they want this year is a more tangible form of success.
However, on this evidence if it is Barcelona or Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid who Arsenal are paired with in next Friday’s draw, then their chances of ending a barren six years with European success look limited in the extreme.