It must have happened in 2010. Arsene Wenger had called The Satan before kick off in the second leg against Porto in the Champions’ League First Knockout Stage.
AW: “Good afternoon, Mr Satan. How are you doing?”
S: “I’m fine, Mr Wenger, thanks for asking. How are you?”
AW: “Well, I’m fine, thank you very much. I got your number from…”
S: “Yes, I know, Alex told me you had asked for my number. We’re in touch on a daily basis.”
AW: “Oh, I see. Well, I wanted to ask for a little favour.”
S: (a huge grin appears) “I’m all ears now.”
AW: “We are about to play the second leg against Porto. We lost the first 2:1 and I wouldn’t like to go out because I really, really, really want to win the Big Cup. They have this Falcao dude in attack and we have…erm…Bendtner.”
S: “I see… I guess you want some help in the second leg, don’t you?”
AW: “Yes, yes, yes! What’s the price?”
S: (tries to control his evil laugh) “It won’t be as expensive as you might have expected. There are three things that you have to accept in order to get the desired victory in the second leg.”
AW (nervously): “Just say it, you old…”
S: “Don’t be rude. First of all, you’ll have the toughest possible draw in the next seven seasons.”
AW: “OK. I can live with that.”
S: “Secondly, one of your most favoured players will be plagued by injuries. Starting from next season, he’ll spend more time in the medical room than in the training.”
AW: (crosses fingers and thinks “Please, just not Diaby, just not Diaby!”) “OK, this game is not about individuals anyway.”
S: “And, finally… You’ll have to sell your best player and captain to my mentor Ferguson when he asks you for it. That’s his provision for setting up this meeting, you know?”
AW: (confused) “Mentor? I thought he was just your favourite protege?”
S: (laughs sincerely) “Oh, no, I’m not bad enough to be HIS mentor.”
AW: “So, it’s a done deal then?”
You might have noticed that Arsenal won the second leg against Porto 5:0 and Nicklas Bendtner outscored Falcao himself in the process. The Danish striker scored a hat-trick in the match that was mostly remembered for Nasri’s brilliant solo-effort if you were able to see the Champions League live. Our next opponents, however, were Barcelona led by Messi and Ibrahimović. The Catalans knocked us out in the quarterfinals and we haven’t played in that phase of the Champions’ League ever since.
In 2010-11, Arsenal were given a rather straight-forward group that included Portuguese side Braga, Ukrainian outfit Shakhtar and the Serbian’s Partizan. Arsenal ended in second place in the group despite the fact they had won all three home matches and that included a 6:0 thrashing of Braga and 5:1 demolition of Shakhtar.
Arsene Wenger predicted correctly that we would probably get Barcelona, the defending champions, in the last 16 before the draw was announced. We had won the first leg before Busacca decided to help Barcelona in the second leg.
In 2011-12, Wenger announced his plan to win all home matches and to draw on our travels. We were given a rather tough group with the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Olympique Marseille and Olympiacos but it went to Wenger’s plan – we secured top spot in the group with a game to spare. However, of all possible opponents, we got by far the toughest we could have drawn – AC Milan led by Ibrahimović (again) and Thiago Silva. The Italians were unseeded in the First Knockout Stage only because they had ended behind Barcelona in their group. We lost the first match 4:0 and that tie was effectively over…or not. In the second leg, we almost pulled the most impressive come-back in Champions’ League history as we had narrowed their lead to just one goal before the break. Unfortunately, Robin Van Persie missed a sitter that would have completed our come-back and we didn’t have enough strength nor any fresh legs on the bench that could have finished the job.
In 2012-13, we were grouped with Schalke, Montpellier and Olympiacos. After we had suffered a nasty defeat at home to Schalke (0:2), we had two chances to restore order and take the first spot at the end of the Group Stage. Firstly, we had a two-goal-cushion at Gelsenkirchen against Schalke before we conceded two. Theo Walcott’s attempt in the last minute to restore our lead hit the post. After we had secured qualification for the last 16 in the penultimate match against Montpellier, Wenger sent a second-string to Athens to face Olympiacos. We had a lead at the half-time thanks to Rosicky’s goal. However, the Greeks scored twice in the second half and helped Schalke to retain top spot while we ended second. We were then drawn against the most impressive side in Europe – Bayern München. Despite the fact we were the only team that had won one leg against Bayern, we were knocked out on away goals.
Now, after we had qualified for the Knockout Stage from the Group of Death this season, Arsenal face Bayern Munich again. The Germans are even stronger than they had been before Josep Guardiola took over. Given the second leg against Bayern will be squeezed between two tough fixtures in the Premiership, Arsene Wenger will have to do something to strengthen our team with players that are not cup-tied in order to add depth to our squad. The truth about our season will be revealed by the end of March.