After Arsene Wenger admitted that he is obsessed with the Champions’ League trophy and Santi Cazorla said Arsenal can win the elite competition, one might ask himself whether Arsenal can engrave their name at the Champions’ League trophy in May 2014.
I made a comparison of our current team with ones that have won the Champions’ League since the First Knockout Stage replaced the Second Group Stage in our favourite 2003/04 season.
It was arguably the weirdest campaign ever and Jose Mourinho’s Porto, who had won the UEFA Cup a season before, ended up as surprising champions of Europe. It’s not like they didn’t have quality players – Vitor Baia was an experienced goalkeeper, Ricardo Carvalho was one of the most intelligent central defenders in Europe during that decade and Deco Anderson de Souza was one of the best playmakers out there as well – but their rivals that included teams like Real Madrid aka Los Galacticos with Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Casillas, Owen and Beckham, the reigning champions AC Milan with world-class players like Kaka’, Pirlo, Stam, Nesta, Cafu, Seedorf and Shevchenko in their ranks and our very own Arsenal aka The Invincibles, seemed far more impressive teams than the Portuguese side.
Porto lost their opening match in the Group Stage to Real Madrid at Dragao – the visitors won that game 3:1 – but after that they never looked back. They took a point at the Santiago Bernabeu (1:1) and qualifed for the First Knockout Stage ahead of French side Olympique Marseille led by the powerful striker Didier Drogba – they later went to the UEFA Cup Final where they were beaten by Valencia 3:0 – and Serbian side Partizan Belgrade.
In the Knockout Stage, Mourinho’s side had won the first game against Manchester United 2:1 at home. In the second leg, after United had taken the lead, Porto managed to score a late goal through Costinha. In the quarterfinals, they won 4:2 on aggregate against the French side Olympique Lyon. Given that Deportivo La Coruna had managed to overturn a three-goal-deficit against AC Milan in the second leg of the quarterfinals and Sebastien Squillaci’s skills were too much for Los Galacticos, Porto were suddenly the only club in the semifinals that had won the competition in the past. They were drawn against Deportivo and after a goal-less draw at Dragao, they scrapped a 1:0 victory at Riazor thanks to the second-half penalty from Derlei. AS Monaco won against Chelsea 5:3 on aggregate and secured themselves a place in the Champions’ League Final for the first time in their history. Porto produced a strong performance but it should be said that an early injury to Ludovic Giuly helped them to prevent the free-scoring French side from making any serious problems for Baia. Porto won 3:0 in the Final at AufSchalke Arena and it has been the most convincing victory in the Champions’ League Final since Real Madrid had thrashed Valencia with the same result in 2000. Jose Mourinho won his first Champions’ League title but didn’t seem to care at all. Porto were on the better side of the referees’ decision during that season (Manchester United scored a goal that was wrongly ruled out as offside, one goal in the Final came after a foul Kim Milton Nielsen didn’t see) and there was a conspiracy theory that included both surprising football champions in 2004 – Porto and Greece.
If Porto surprised everyone with their victory in the Champions’ League, then what Liverpool did in the Champions’ League Final 2005 was a real shocker. Liverpool – led by their new manager Rafael Benitez and reinforced with the Spanish duo Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia – had been far from the most impressive side in Europe before the Final. Their narrow aggregate victory against the Austrian side GAK was good enough to bring them into the Champions’ League Group Stage. They were in the same group with the runners-up from the season before – AS Monaco – and semifinalists Deportivo La Coruna while Greek side Olympiacos – despite the likes of Rivaldo in their ranks – were considered underdogs. However, Liverpool had suffered two defeats before the last day of the Group Stage in which they had to win 1:0 or by at least a two-goal-margin against Olympiacos who had three more points and a 1:0 victory from Athens over the Reds. After Rivaldo had scored the opener, Liverpool were in a difficult situation before the second half. Sinama Pongolle did score an equalizer at the start of the second half but nothing had separated the two teams before they entered the last ten minutes. Then, Mellor scored a goal of hope for the Reds and Gerrard completed a come-back for Rafa Benitez’s side four minutes before the end.
Liverpool played Bayer Leverkusen in the First Knockout Stage. Liverpool went through much easier than anyone would have thought – 6:2 on aggregate thanks to the prolific Luis Garcia who scored three goals in the tie. In the quarterfinals Liverpool played Juventus and brought only a one-goal-advantage to Turin after they had beaten the Italians 2:1. In the second leg, Juventus – who had players like Buffon, Nedved, Del Piero, Cannavaro, Thuram, Ibrahimović and Trezeguet in their ranks – couldn’t find a way to score against the Reds so Liverpool went through. After Rafa Benitez had beaten Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in the semifinals thanks to that mysterious goal from Luis Garcia, they played against AC Milan in the Final. The Italian side scored at the very beginning and two more goals had brought them close to their seventh European title but in a six-minute-come-back, Liverpool equalized. After Shevchenko had missed a sitter in extra-time, it was the Ukrainian striker that missed the last penalty in the shoot-out which meant Liverpool became the European champions for the fifth time in the history.
This was the most painful campaign for us. Barcelona – led by Ronaldinho – returned among the best teams in the world. Los Cules had dispatched their opponents before the Knockout Stage without any problems. In the first round they had their revenge against Chelsea thanks to a 2:1 victory at Stamford Bridge after Asier Del Horno had earned a red card for a dangerous tackle on the 19-year-old Lionel Messi. Barcelona won against Benfica in the quarterfinals and against AC Milan in the semifinals without conceding a single goal…well, except the one Andriy Shevchenko scored at Camp Nou that was ruled out for non-existing foul Shevchenko “made” against Carles Puyol. In the Champions’ League Final, they should have been beaten by Arsenal despite playing against ten men since Lehmann had been sent off in the 18th minute but it wasn’t Henry’s day. We had had at least two chances to kill them off before Eto’o and Belletti completed a come-back for Barcelona.
AC MILAN 2006-07
Just like Liverpool had done in 2004-05, the Italian side had entered the competition in the qualifying stage (3:1 on aggregate against Serbian side Red Star) and then won it. Just like Liverpool, they suffered two defeats in the Group Stage as well against OSC Lille and AEK but still qualified for the Knockout Stage in top spot. In the First Knockout Stage, they had a lot of problems against the resilient Scottish side Celtic. There were no goals in 180 minutes of the tie but in the extra-time there was a magical moment from a magical player – Kaka’ scored the only goal of the tie to launch Milan into the quarterfinals. Bayern München were their next opponents and things didn’t look nice for the Italians after the first leg – Bayern scored a late equalizer at San Siro. However, Milan gave a tidy performance in the second leg and won 2:0. In the semifinals, it was Kaka’ again who provided the extra-quality Milan needed against Manchester United and their attacking duo Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. Kaka’ single-handily kept Milan alive at Old Trafford by scoring both of their goals in the 3:2 defeat. In the second leg, Milan dispatched the English side easily and won 3:0 with Kaka’ scoring the opener. In the Final, Milan got their revenge against Liverpool and thanks to a lucky brace from Filippo Inzaghi, the Italians won their seventh European title. It was the last big competition win from Carlo Ancelotti’s side that included players like Nesta, Maldini, Seedorf, Pirlo, Kaka’, Inzaghi…
MANCHESTER UNITED 2007-08
United won the Champions’ League in 2007-08 and it was all about great defending. They won their straight-forward group without any problems and qualified for the Knockout Stage with 16 out of 18 possible points. In the First Knockout Stage, they played Olympique Lyon. The French side had scored the first goal of the tie thanks to their brilliant talent Karim Benzema but it was the last goal that Manchester United had conceded before the Final. United scored one goal in each leg of the tie against Lyon and that was enough progression. In the quarterfinals, they dispatched their regular victims AS Roma 3:0 on aggregate and went to the semifinals. That’s where they faced pre-Guardiola’s Barcelona. United could have won the first leg at Camp Nou but Cristiano Ronaldo missed an early penalty. In the second leg, Paul Scholes scored the only goal of the tie and secured an all-English Final. Ronaldo had given them an advantage against Chelsea before Fat Lampard equalized. Despite Drogba’s red card, United couldn’t avoid penalties. Chelsea had the advantage after Ronaldo had missed another penalty but the famous “John-Terry-slipped”-routine saved Ferguson’s team from defeat. The Dutch goalkeeper Edwin Van der Sar saved Nicolas Anelka’s penalty and won his second Champions’ League. United had a brilliant attacking duo Cristiano Ronaldo-Wayne Rooney with Carlos Tevez in their ranks as well but it was their defence with Nemanja Vidić, Gerard Pique and Edwin Van der Sar that played the most important part in the cup win.
Josep Guardiola’s Barcelona made a revolution in the world football. It was an implementation of the “tiki-taka”, a football tactic based on plenty of possession and almost endless passes, at the highest level. Now, one might argue that Guardiola and his Barcelona didn’t invent tiki-taka – after all, Total Football dates from 70’s and Ajax – but Xavi, Iniesta and Messi gave it a new look. If Guardiola didn’t revolutionize world football, he most certainly did to the Barcelona locker room. His team was built around the brilliant playmaker Xavi, one of the best attacking midfielders in history, Andres Iniesta and one of the best players of all time and Lionel Messi. The 21-year-old Argentinian was given a starring role in Guardiola’s vision whilst his precedent Ronaldinho was sacrificed. Our own legend Thierry Henry had a much better campaign than he had in 2007-08. They re-signed Gerard Pique from Manchester United in order to reinforce the defensive part of the team, the one that has always been the weakest link. Although people tend to name that Barcelona as the best of all time, they weren’t invincible – they lost a second leg against Wisla in the Champions’ League play-offs and Shakhtar won at Camp Nou in the Group Stage. Barcelona had won the group easily before the Knockout Phase where they crashed Lyon 6:3 and Bayern 5:1 on aggregate respectively. In the semifinals against Chelsea, they had had a lot of help from the referee in the second leg before Andres Iniesta equalized in the injury time and gave Barcelona progression to the Final on away goals. In the Final, Barcelona dismantled Manchester United led by Ronaldo and Rooney for the last time and the score-line should have been much worse for the Red Devils. Goals from Eto’o and Messi were enough to secure the third European title for Los Cules.
Jose Mourinho had been knocked out by Manchester United in 2008-09 before he found a winning formula with Inter Milan. He was helped by Barcelona – they gave him Samuel Eto’o and a lot of cash for Zlatan Ibrahimović – and Real Madrid – who gave up on Wesley Sneijder pretty easily. Although Inter had suffered a heavy defeat in the Group Stage to Barcelona that had played without Messi and Ibrahimović, they managed to progress to the Knockout Stage thanks to a 2:0 victory over Rubin Kazan in the last match in the Group Stage. Mourinho’s Inter flourished and they beat Chelsea 3:1 on aggregate and 2:0 against CSKA Moscow, winning all four matches in the process, before they took on Barcelona in the semifinals. Barcelona were considered as favourites but Inter won the first leg 3:1 despite conceding first and then Barcelona couldn’t break their defensive bus parked at the Camp Nou more than once. Inter played against Bayern München in the Champions’ League Final and thanks to two goals from the Argentinian veteran Diego Milito, they became European champions for the third time in their history. It was another Argentinian veteran that deserved to lift that trophy for Inter – long-time captain Javier Zanetti was the main reason why I wanted Inter – despite Mourinho – to win the Final.
Inter were a typical Mourinho team – strong in defence led by the Brazilian Julio Cesar between the sticks and central defender Lucio, rough and tough in the midfield with combative Argentinian Esteban Cambiasso doing the dirty work for the creative Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder and with the brilliant pair of Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito in attack. It was a swan song for the Italians as they haven’t been anywhere near those days of glory since Mourinho left Inter for Real Madrid.
Guardiola hadn’t waited too long before he returned to the European throne. However, we all know how Barcelona won this one. After they had won their light-weight group easily, they played against us in the First Knockout Stage. After they had been one goal up, Robin Van Persie and Andrey Arshavin gave us a narrow victory, the first one against Barcelona in the Wenger-era on the fifth attempt. Arsenal have been the only team in Europe that actually won a game against Guardiola’s and post-Guardiola Barcelona with their own weapon – attacking football. In the second leg, Barcelona had Massimo Busacca on their side and we couldn’t play against that sort of player. After Sergio Busquets’ own goal had put Barcelona on the edge, Busacca helped the hosts with a terrible second yellow card for Van Persie. Barcelona exploited their advantage and won the tie thanks to goals from Xavi and Messi.
Shakhtar were an easy ride for them and Real Madrid couldn’t win a single leg in the semifinals against Barca nor prevent Messi from scoring. Their opponents in the Final were Manchester United and they dispatched them easily despite the 1:1 score-line at the break. Villa and Messi were too much for their opponents so Guardiola won his second title with Barcelona in the space of three years.
This one was ugly. Chelsea were close to an early exit in the Group Stage but they saved themselves with a convincing 3:0 victory over Valencia in the last match. Then, after they had replaced Andre Villas-Boas on the bench with Roberto Di Matteo, their silly trip to the European title began. After they had lost to Napoli 3:1 in the first leg, their odds weren’t exactly the best but they managed to win the game in the extra-times thanks to Branislav Ivanović’s goal. In the quarterfinals Benfica’s European curse was a blessing for Chelsea as the Portuguese side lost both matches against Chelsea. In the semifinals, Chelsea won the first leg against Barcelona thanks to Didier Drogba’s goal. In the second leg, Barcelona had a two-goal-lead and one player more after Terry had lost his mind and earned a red card but Ramires and Torres rescued Chelsea emphatically and they professed. In the Final at the Allianz Arena against Bayern München, they should have been beaten but the Germans couldn’t find the net before Thomas Müller gave them a lead with seven minutes to go but Didier Drogba leveled the score only four minutes later. In extra-time, Bayern should have taken the deciding lead but Arjen Robben’s penalty was saved by Petr Čech. The Czech goalkeeper was the hero for Chelsea as he had saved Ivica Olić’s penalty in the shoot-out as well before Drogba scored the deciding penalty. Di Matteo’s Chelsea didn’t look like champions at all but the individual quality of Drogba and Čech mixed with Di Matteo’s defensive approach against stronger opponents handed them the illustrious trophy.
BAYERN MÜNCHEN 2012-13
The reigning champions Bayern have been very consistent in the Champions’ League as they have played in three out of four Finals played between 2010 and 2013. Their long-term project that started with Louis Van Gaal began to pay off last season – they won all possible trophies. They did win their group only thanks to a better head-to-head record against Valencia but despite the shocking defeat at BATE Borisov in Belarus, they were obvious favourites to win the competition from the start. In the First Knockout Stage, unfortunately, they played against us. They outclassed us at the Emirates and won 3:1 but we restored our pride with a 2:0 victory at Allianz Arena, the result that didn’t help us to progress to but most certainly gave us a lot of confidence for the brilliant run-in last season and turned us into the title contenders that we have been this season. We have been the last side that avoided defeat against Bayern – they had won 4:0 on aggregate against Juventus and 7:0 against Barcelona respectively before they won the Final against domestic rivals Borussia Dortmund 2:1 thanks to the last-minute goal from Arjen Robben.
Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern were an impressive side that used world-class wingers Robben and Ribery and overlapping full-backs Lahm and Alaba to open up opponents who couldn’t cope with their midfield and a defensive wall built around Javi Martinez, Bastian Schweinsteiger (he was absent in two out of three defeats Bayern suffered in 2012-13) and Manuel Neuer. A hard-working striker Mario Mandžukić scored when he needed to.
Now, how does the current Arsenal stand in comparison to the former and reigning European champions?
We have some ingredients that the aforementioned teams had or have had. We have a long-term project, a defensive line built over the years (Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs), arguably the best domestic talents (Gibbs, Wilshere, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey), a hard-working and mostly under-estimated striker (Giroud), a world-class No.10 (Özil), squad players like Arteta and Flamini that add different qualities to our team (similar to Busquets and Mascherano with Barcelona), a world-class talent between the sticks (Szczesny) and, what might be crucial, the new-found ability to win ugly (as seen in Münich last season and in Dortmund this season). Of course, Arsene Wenger the, one with the vision that hasn’t always been visible to us, is a manager that can win the Champions’ League.
We can discuss whether we have enough squad depth but we are just eight really good performances away from winning the Champions’ League it while we’ll need a lot more to win the Premiership.
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