If there is a consistency about Arsenal, it’s our Champions’ League record. We have qualified beyond The Group Stage for the 15th time in a row and we’ll find out the name of our opponents in The First Knockout Stage today.
Since the introduction of the current format of the competition in 2003-04, we have been regular participants in The First Knockout Stage.
In 2003-04, The Invincibles knocked out the Spanish side Celta Vigo winning both legs of the tie. In 2004-05, we lost the first leg to Bayern 3:1 and our 1:0 victory wasn’t enough to overcome the deficit.
In 2005-06 – our best Champions’ League campaign ever – we won against the favourites Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu thanks to one of many moments of brilliance from Thierry Henry and kept another clean sheet in the reverse fixture (0:0).
Next season, we were surprisingly beaten by PSV – we lost the first leg 1:0 and couldn’t find the way to beat the Dutch side at the Emirates as the game ended 1:1.
We didn’t win The First Knockout Stage match at the Emirates in 2007-08 either – the reigning champions managed to avoid defeat (0:0) but Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Adebayor gave us a brilliant 2:0 victory at the San Siro to put us through.
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In 2008-09 we knocked out another Italian side – AS Roma – but we had to take eight penalties in the shoot-out before we secured the progress to the quarterfinals.
In 2009-10 we lost the first leg to Porto FC (2:1) before Nicklas Bendtner’s hat-trick and Samir Nasri’s dribbling skills condemned the Portuguese side to 5:0 defeat at the Emirates.
The thing is, we haven’t gone through The First Knockout Stage since that night!
In 2010-11, we were drawn against Barcelona. We won the first leg 2:1 thanks to the one of the best performances in the last decade. In the second leg, Massimo Busacca gave a bizarre second yellow card to Robin Van Persie and helped Barcelona to knock us out. We lost 3:1 and Barcelona went on to win the competition without too much trouble. Even in those circumstances Nicklas Bendtner could have sent us through in the last minutes of the game.
In 2011-12, we lost 4:0 to Zlatan Ibrahimović-inspired AC Milan in the first leg. We almost made an astonishing come-back and scored three goals in the first half of the second leg. Van Persie missed a sitter to equalize the tie and we were knocked out. It’s worth of mentioning that we were really, really unlucky with the draw – we had won the group with a game to spare before we were handed the most difficult opponents in The Knockout Stage. AC Milan were second in their group only because they were in the group with Barcelona.
In 2012-13, we got the most difficult opponents again. Bayern München under Jupp Heynckes were arguably one of the best European teams of all times and we were going through a difficult season after Van Persie’s departure. We lost the first leg at home 3:1 but gave an amazing team performance in the reverse fixture. We won 2:0 and gave a good scare to the Bavarians. Bayern eventually won the competition beating Juventus (4:0 on aggregate), Barcelona (7:0 on aggregate) and Borussia Dortmund (2:1) on their road.
In 2013-14, we were drawn against the German giants again. Bayern won the first leg at the Emirates again 2:0 but had been the second best team on the pitch before Wojciech Szczesny got sent off. Mesut Özil missed a penalty at 0:0. We managed to stay undefeated at Allianz Arena again though – Lukas Podolski scored an equalizer with a rocket-shot that would have dismembered Manuel Neuer if he had touched the ball.
We ended the group stage on the second spot again so we don’t have easy prospects ahead of us. Here are the possible opponents.
It would be so Arsenal-esque to get the strongest possible opponents for the fifth time in a row. The Spanish giants have been on an incredible winning streak in all competitions and Cristiano Ronaldo has already scored 32 goals this season (and it’s only December!). Of course, it’s difficult to maintain that sort of form for a long period of time but at this moment, they look unplayable. Their attacking line is full of pace, their midfield is arguably the best in the world in terms of transition and transformation while their defence is surprisingly solid. They have won all six group matches including two against Liverpool. Cristiano Ronaldo has made a strong case for being the best player of all times, Toni Kroos is the world’s most complete midfielder, Gareth Bale’s quality can be matched only by his ugliness, James Rodriguez is one of the most exciting players in the world and we all know how our long-time love interest Karim Benzema is dangerous. Add St. Iker between the sticks and it’s clear why I don’t want to see Real as our opponents in the next round.
The Germans have all but secured the title in Bundesliga even before the end of the first half of the season and won the strongest Champions’ League group with two games to spare. They lost to Manchester City but even in that game they showed how strong they are despite playing with 10 men for almost seventy minutes. They have been one of the best European teams in the last five seasons (they’ve played three times in The Final) and they are now even stronger with Robert Lewandowski leading their attack, Xabi Alonso adding quality to their midfield and Mehdi Benatia as another defensive option. The best goalkeeper in the world (Neuer), the best right winger in the world (Arjen Robben), the best holding striker in the world (Lewandowski) and the best full-back in the world (Phillip Lahm) make them unwanted opponents.
Our old “friends” from Catalonia have managed to win the group ahead of PSG. Their attacking trident consisting of Luis Suarez, Neymar and, of course, Lionel Messi is yet to produce free-scoring football like their arch-rivals from Madrid have done this term. For years Barcelona have symbolized attacking football but Luis Enrique has already managed to shock purists among Barcelona fans by putting two defensive midfielders at the same time on the pitch. It would be a stupid thing to say that Barcelona would be pushovers against us – they wouldn’t – but I feel that we would have a realistic chance to knock them out. Their defence is hardly a bullet-proof one and our pacey attackers are more than capable of doing a lot of damage to them.
The reigning champions of Spain have won the group ahead of Juventus. Diego Simeone is arguably one of the best – if not the best manager – in the world at the moment. He has already broken the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid in Primera, won Europa League with Atletico and reached The Champions’ League Final in which he was seconds away from winning the competition. Atletico are just like their manager – hard-working, difficult to beat, impossible to break, capable of pulling the dirtiest trick out there to beat their rivals. They are a bit weaker than they had been last term – while Mario Mandžukić is not worse option than Diego Costa was, Thibaut Courtois is a better goalkeeper than Jan Oblak. They would represent a very serious obstacle due to their tactical strength and ability to exploit every defensive mistake, especially at set-pieces (Diego Godin has shown his ability to score big goals after set-pieces many times) but I’d pick them over Real Madrid or Bayern any day. If we get them, Emirates Stadium will finally see Arda Turan, a legend of transfer rumours as he has been connected with Arsenal ever since he was born.
It’s a bit weird to see a seeded team that have managed to score just four goals in the group stage but still won the group. The French side did exactly that thanks to their impressive defensive record – they have conceded just one goal in the competition. We lost to them at our own soil during Emirates Cup but their goal-scorer Radamel Falcao is now at Manchester United. They have a lot of talented, pacey and strong players (Kurzawa, Kondogbia, Ocampos) paired with experienced players (Berbatov, Carvalho) but they would probably represent the best opponents for us. One of their fans wrote earlier this term that Arsenal, Monaco and Borussia Dortmund are like one team that plays in three different leagues – injury problems, dozens of missed chances and spilled points mixed with number of totally avoidable goals have plagued all three teams. It’s not the only connection between the clubs – the greatest manager and the best player in Arsenal history had worked together at Monaco. Given how good our record in France has been recently, maybe a visit to Monte Carlo would be the best option.
The Portuguese side won their group with a game to spare. Now, their group was arguably the weakest one in the competition but Porto can always produce a surprising result. If Arda Turan is a legend of transfer rumours, what is there to say about Jackson Martinez? The Colombian striker has been connected with a move to Arsenal even after Wenger signed Alexis and Welbeck. He is a real goal-scoring machine though – strong in the air and capable of scoring with his feet as well – and would pose the biggest threat to us if we get to play them. Their defence has international players like Danilo (Brazil), Bruno Martins Indi (Holland) and Diego Reyes (Mexico) while Juan Quintero and Ricardo Quaresma are capable of producing magical moments on the pitch. Still, given all circumstances, the Portuguese side might be the best choice. Our bad luck in The First Knockout Stage has started after we had beaten Porto in 2009-10 – perhaps another tie with Porto would break the curse!
Personally, I’m afraid that we can already prepare ourselves for the clash against Real Madrid. Hopefully, we’ll get either Monaco or Porto so we can get to the quarterfinals. Nevertheless, as long as we are solid at the back, creative in the middle and mobile upfront, I’m not scared of anyone!