Arsenal managed to survive the Champions League group stage for an emphatic sixteenth consecutive time, a streak second only to Real Madrid’s 17. A spectre was haunting us however, the thought of Thursday football, but we put things in their place by beating Olympiacos 3:0 in Piraeus.
Here are the key points from our European campaign so far:
1.Arsenal best XI can beat the best teams in Europe…
All Arsenal fans were overjoyed when the (often useless) goalbox linesman signaled Mesut Özil’s shot as crossing the line which meant Bayern were well beaten at the Emirates. Bayern München, arguably one of the best teams in Europe, lost at the hands of Arsenal. If the Gunners can beat Bayern, then we can beat anyone. Petr Čech, Laurent Koscielny, Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez make a world-class spine that is second to none in England. Then, add excellent full-backs Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal who are effective at both ends of the pitch, hard-working midfielders like Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey working their socks off in the middle of the pitch and central forwards Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott who have the ability to score goals – then you have yourself a great team.
2….but our combined XI struggle to beat the worst.
The main reason why we had to go for “a great escape” as Arsene Wenger coined it, is the fact our combined XI had failed to deliver a single point in the opening two matches against Dinamo in Zagreb and Olympiacos in London. David Ospina, Mathieu Debuchy, Kieran Gibbs and Mikel Arteta failed to impress against Olympiacos and one of the worst teams ever in the Champions League Dinamo Zagreb which means Wenger will have to rely on his first choice stars to reach the latter stages of the Champions League. Breaking our Round of 16 hoodoo would be a good place to start.
3.The importance of Olivier Giroud.
One of the reasons why we fell into a deep hole after the first two games was namely down to Giroud’s red card in Zagreb. We were down to ten men after just 40 minutes and the Frenchman was consequently suspended for our match against the Greeks which disrupted our attacking play. He had spent over an hour on the bench against Bayern before crowning his cameo with the opening goal that handed us a life line. The Frenchman was one of the best on the pitch in our defeat in Munich as well and scored a spectacular goal that would have made the internet explode if it had been scored by Robert Lewandowski or Luis Suarez. Finally, Giroud’s first hat-trick for an injury-plagued side in a must-win game at Grigorios Karaiskakis Stadium secured our progress to the Round of 16. With five goals in five appearances and a spectacular goal-per-minute ratio, 59.4 minutes per goal (via Squawka.com), Giroud has justified Wenger’s faith in him once again.
4.Our performance in Munich is a reason why I believe we can win the thing.
Back in 2000-01, I watched the game between Olympique Lyon and Bayern München. It was played in the Champions League Second Group Stage with Arsenal and Spartak Moscow the remaining two teams in the group. Lyon won 3:0 but after the game had ended I called my friend – a Bayern fan – and told him: “Don’t worry. Now I know you will win Champions League.” And, indeed, Bayern eventually won the illustrious trophy. I can’t recall what made me think that back then but I guess I felt that Bayern had a lot more to offer and that they would be unstoppable when all their best players return to the team.
If you ask me what that story has to do with Arsenal winning the Champions League, I’m getting to the point. Yes, we lost 5:1 to Bayern but even our injury-depleted team gave them a good scare going forward and the final score should have been more kind to us. That wasn’t the real Arsenal but we could easily have scored more than just the once at Allianz Arena.
5.Petr Čech is a natural-born winner.
The Czech goalkeeper kept a clean sheet three times in the Champions League. His contribution to our escape was huge – he frustrated Robert Lewandowski in our victory over Bayern and didn’t allow Olympiacos to peg us back immediately after Giroud’s second goal with a wonderful left-handed save. Čech won the thing for Chelsea almost single-handedly in 2011-12 and there is no reason why he couldn’t repeat the feat with Arsenal.
6.Mesut Özil is a world-class player who can bring any defence to their knees.
The King of Assists has scored two goals in the Champions League (via Squawka) but it’s his overall play that is simply breath-taking. Arsene’s description of Özil as a musician that plays only the right notes (via the Standard) is a perfect analogy. Every pitch is his stage and we can all enjoy watching his symphonies composed in front of our eyes.
The way he took on Bayern in Munich was something soooo different from any of Özil’s previous European performances. He was there to lead the team to victory…or at least to be the last man standing in an honourable defeat.
His last Champions League performance against Olympiacos was spectacular as well. He was the mastermind of our fruitful attacks, a genius who was capable of picking preposterously brilliant pass to Aaron Ramsey before our first goal.
If he plays like this in the spring too, we can knock everyone out of the competition. Yes, Barcelona, EVERYONE!
7.Hector Bellerin’s run against Bayern was a joy to watch.
Bellerin’s emergence is one of the most beautiful stories of 2015. The 20-year-old Spaniard has become an indispensable member of the team as his pace is second to none (sorry, Theo!).
The highlight of his season, however, was his final bursting run against Bayern München in injury-time that included intercepting the ball from our own half, fighting off Bayern defenders to reach their box and sending a low cross for Özil’s goal. Amazing!
It’s no coincidence we have conceded seven goals in the two matches Bellerin didn’t play and three in four with him on the pitch. The kid is going to be world-class!
8.If we want to win, we must not concede.
Arsenal have played eight Champions League matches in 2015 – four victories, four defeats (via Squawka). The thing is, we have lost all four matches in which we conceded goals (Monaco 1:3, Dinamo Zagreb 1:2, Olympiacos 2:3, Bayern 1:5). In each of those four defeats our defending was beyond appalling and the main reason for all our troubles. In order to keep our European dream alive, we have to fix our defensive issues, most notably offside-traps and set-pieces.
9.Lady Fortune should start protecting Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but he has to do something for himself.
The English youngster hasn’t had the best campaign this season. Remember when I mentioned four Champions League defeats in 2015? Well, we conceded the third goal against Monaco after Oxlade-Chamberlain had lost the ball, Dinamo’s first goal was his unlucky own goal and Olympiacos’ first goal came after an unlucky deflection from the England international’s foot. He was absent against Bayern due to an injury picked up against Sheffield Wednesday.
Now, The Ox is not entirely faultless. He has failed to impress this season and the linesman saved him from more blushes against Bayern in our victory at the Emirates as he made an embarrassing miss with an open goal at his mercy. The Ox is a superb talent but he has to take his chances in the final third and reduce his mistakes in our own half.
10.Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck and Tomas Rosicky are yet to feature.
If there is a positive from our injury record, it’s the fact we’ll have fresh troops come February and March. We have three excellent players who are yet to feature this season and that includes the European front as well. Wilshere, Welbeck and Rosicky have pace, aggression and drive to give a variety of options to Arsene Wenger. Let’s not forget about Francis Coquelin who could also be in the squad for Round of 16.
Can you imagine, say, a Champions League Final between Arsenal and Barcelona? Would Barcelona defenders go forward that often knowing that Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Alexis Sánchez are prepared to massacre them on counter-attacks?
Conclusion: it’s difficult to say what we can expect from our European campaign. We can beat the best and lose against the worst. We can score a spectacular goal and concede a shocker. Basically, it will come down to our focus and inspiration from our best players. Will we have that when it matters? It’s difficult to say.
What I do know is this: on our day, we can go all the way and finally become European champions. So, let’s make every European match our day!