Lately everyone with a column-inch in a newspaper has been busy predicting the end of Arsenal as a “big club.” Now they’re going to have to wait a little while longer. Thursday we sat back and waited to hear Arsenal’s name called at the UEFA Champions League group stage draw for the 14th straight season. While our ball was sitting in “pot 1,” Manchester City’s was sitting in “pot 3”, Liverpool were playing Exeter in the Carling Cup and Sp*rs were playing Hearts in something called “the Europa League” (whatever that is). So remind me who the “big club” is again? … That’s what I thought.
After failing to properly bribe UEFA officials, Arsenal were drawn into Group F on Thursday, along with Marseille, Olympiakos and Borussia Dortmund. It’s a difficult group, primarily because the team we drew from “pot 4” are the reigning champions of Germany. Compare that with Manchester United’s “pot 4” “opponents,” Otelul Galati (God-bless you).
Our group is certainly more challenging than some of our draws in recent seasons. But we proved last season that it’s possible to make a mess of an easy draw even when it seems the group is won. This season we will need to show more consistency if we want to progress. We can’t afford efforts like the ones we saw at Shakhtar and Braga in particular.
I think there are a few advantages to our draw. First, it’s a wonderful draw for the supporters as it offers three excellent away trips. It should be a pleasure for Arsenal fans to attend any of these fixtures. And the locales also benefit the team. There aren’t any long journeys to far flung lands. We don’t visit any teams that play in freezing temperatures or on plastic pitches. That doesn’t mean we should expect easy wins. But it should mean that the players are sharper. It’s a little easier to be ready for a tuesday match, following a saturday match, if you don’t have a 12-hour flight, a 4-hour time difference and -20 degree temperatures.
The proximity of our opponents isn’t the only thing that gives cause for optimism. While Arsenal will be expected to top the group, the relative parity among the teams could be advantageous. Last season, we had a group with two very weak teams. We mostly beat up on the lesser opposition, but so did Shakhtar Donetsk. As a result, our one poor result at Braga, cost us the chance to finish top.
This season, it’s unlikely that any team will dominate the group. Marseille, Olympiakos and Dortmund will probably take points off each other. That will give us more breathing room to overcome a few disappointments. Even if we were to lose two of our three away fixtures, we could still reasonably expect to top the group by winning at home.
For example, consider a scenario where the other three teams each take 3 points off one another. Then if we were to win our home matches, a lone away-point would win us the group. That’s just one example of how increased competitiveness within the group could be advantageous.
Obviously there are too many possible permutations to discuss them all, but I think that our opponents will do enough damage to one another to clear a path for us. The key to winning this group will be taking maximum points at home and we’ve been excellent at doing that in European competition lately. Last season we dominated our group stage opponents at home and beat mighty Barcelona. (Just in case your forgot.)
Winning our home matches is certainly achievable, but if we want to progress from the group we might have to improve on our poor away form from last season’s Champions League campaign. Thankfully, the fixture computer has been kind to us this term. Our trip to Dortmund is wedged between a home match against newly promoted Swansea and a visit to Ewood Park to face a very weak-looking Blackburn. We travel to the Stade Velodrome in Marseille between home matches with Sunderland and Stoke. And we wrap-up the group stage on December 6 in Greece after playing at Wigan, before Everton come to the Emirates. All things considered, we should be able to set-up our squad in those Premier League matches with one eye on our Champions League responsibilities.
There’s something to be said for tasting success when it’s been earned with sweat. Last season we went straight into the group stages and strolled through our early season fixtures. By the time we faced any hardship, the team looked unprepared. But this season we’ve been under siege from the start. We only reached the Champions League group stage thanks to a heroic effort in our playoff against Udinese. I think the hardship we’ve already experienced could mean that we will see a more focused and hungry side when the group stage begins next month. Since we face our toughest opponent, Dortmund, at their ground in our first match, there will be no opportunity for complacency to take hold. Regardless of the result, that could work to our benefit in the long-run. I don’t expect we’ll see this team take any opposition lightly this time around.
Finally, there’s one more variable to the equation that could result in Arsenal comfortably reaching the knockout rounds for the 12th consecutive year: new signings. Right now we are contemplating our chances of progression based on the team we currently have. That’s all we can do. But in reality, there will surely be reinforcements arriving before the Champions League gets underway. I think we’re strong enough to get through this group as we’re currently constituted. But we’re going to be an even bigger favorite to top the group after Hazard, Sneijder, Kaka, M’Villa, Martin, Cahill, Baines and Robot-Striker-3000 arrive. That should be just enough to put us over the edge.
One last thing. Yesterday’s blog was on AshburtonGrove.co.uk. It’s about falling in love with Arsenal all over again. If you like that sort of thing, and didn’t see it here, it’s now up on this site. Just click the link below this post and it will take you there.
Enjoy your friday Gooners. With any luck, Cesc won’t win his third trophy with Barca tonight.