Arsenal’s route to the Champions League final
Back in May 2006, Arsenal were just 14 minutes away from winning the Champions League for the first time. Talismanic defender Sol Campbell had nodded the Gunners in front before half-time against Barcelona, despite a red card for goalkeeper Jens Lehmann in the 18th minute; Arséne Wenger’s side were on the brink of being the first one from London to take the greatest honour in European club football home.
But it wasn’t to be. Arsenal’s defence was breached by striker Samuel Eto’o in the 76th minute, then Juliano Belletti, who had come off the bench in the 71st minute, bagged the winner just nine minutes later.
That was the closest Arsenal have ever come to winning the Champions League, having rarely come close to replicating the run that saw them come out of the tunnel at the Stade de France as finalists. Despite being a fixture in the competition for the last 16 years, Wenger’s men are infamous for their ability to crumble in the knockout stages, all too often finding the big boys too much to handle.
The closest they’ve come to reaching the final since that devastating defeat in Paris was when they reached the semi-finals in 2009, but and even then, they enjoyed a relatively easy route to that stage, beating Roma and Villarreal before being dispatched by Premier League rivals Manchester United.
This season, Arsenal reached the round of 16 with relative ease, finishing top of their group, only to be handed a tie against German champions Bayern Munich, the joint-second favourite to lift the trophy in June alongside holders Real Madrid, who will struggle to defend their title, going by the records 888sport looked at earlier this month.
Barcelona, the club that shattered Arsenal’s Champions League dreams ten years ago, are currently the outright favourites to win the Champions League this season, while Atlético Madrid, Juventus and Manchester City are all rated as having a decent chance.
So, what is it about Arsenal, such a decorated club under Wenger when it comes to domestic football, that sees them consistently choke when they meet the top sides in Europe?
For a long time, the inexperience of the Frenchman’s teams was blamed; for a period in the late 2000s, the French manager attempted to nurture a team of talented young players in the hope they would blossom into a side of footballing superstars.
Ultimately, this strategy failed, both on the European stage and in England, with of some of the players, such as Denilson and Johan Djourou, failing to live up to their full potential and others, like Cesc Fàbregas and Robin van Persie, moving on to bigger clubs in search of trophies.
Arsenal have a more balanced side now in terms of age and experience, with the likes of Alexis Sánchez, Mesut Özil and Petr Čech proven winners, while players like Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are now older and wiser, and capable of producing moments of magic. Still, it’s difficult to escape the notion that they may still be one or two players short of being a side that could conquer Europe.
Wenger has a reputation for remaining loyal to his players, but herein lies the root cause of Arsenal’s eternal Champions League struggle. The squads Wenger has assembled over the last decade have simply not been ruthless enough to finish off the bigger teams, and the Frenchman’s allegiance to players that just aren’t quite good enough has ultimately proven to be his undoing.
Conquering the Champions League is just too much of a challenge for the one or two stars Wenger asks to lead the assault, supported only by inexperienced players or those that are below the quality required in at that level. Europe’s biggest sides have the class and the nous to snuff out the threat posed by Arsenal’s star players, stopping the Gunners in their tracks as result.
If Sanchez, Özil and Čech can produce heroics in the game against Bayern, Arsenal will be in with a shot of progressing. However, when you look at the quality in the Bavarian club’s squad – from Robert Lewandowski, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry up front to Mats Hummels, Jérôme Boateng and Manuel Neuer at the back – it’s easy to see why they are favourites.
Whether Wenger will ever be able to win the Champions League without biting the bullet and further bolstering his squad with footballers that have proven themselves at the top level, rather than padding it out with promising yet ultimately lightweight players and asking too much of his two or three stars, remains to be seen. But of course, the beauty of football is that anything can, and often does happen.