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Arsène and the futile(?) quest for the Holy Grail

“I would estimate that around half of these games are meaningless…And after maybe ten years of this, the Championship becomes something you either believe in or you don’t, like God. You concede that it is possible of course, and you try to respect the views of those who have managed to remain credulous.” (Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch 1992)

 Those words were written 25 years ago and referenced Hornby’s feelings as to Arsenal’s place in the hierarchy of English football before the miracle of Anfield 89; but in so many ways they probably ring true for modern day Gooners and their attitude towards the Champions League.

Growing up surrounded by Liverpool fans and having watched English clubs dominate the European Cup in the late 70’s and early 80’s; I came to accept that it was a competition that was for other clubs, not for us. Denied entry to the competition in 1989 as a result of the post-Heysel ban on English clubs; when the messiah George did lead us to the Promised Land, it ended with our dreams in tatters, humbled at Highbury by Benfica in the second round.

I drew some consolation and grew to love the European Cup Winners Cup with our success in the mid-90’s, and the floodlit nights at Highbury against exotic-seeming teams from across the continent; but it always felt inferior to its big brother, the cup with the big ears, that meant that you were champions of Europe.

Arsène arrived just as UEFA had meddled with the format of the competition and started permitting two teams from select nations to qualify, thus beginning the dilution of the aura of the competition formerly known as the European Champion Clubs’ Cup. The double win in his first full season at the helm sealed our first qualification since 1991; however in a portent of future motivation, the club opted to move its games to the bigger Wembley Stadium for its first two participations in the new European super competition, a decision that was to have disastrous results on the field with only 7 points taken out of a possible 18 at home and elimination at the first hurdle on both occasions.

Since 2000/01 the club has continued to qualify year on year and to progress beyond the group stage each time, an achievement oft-cited by our manager as a representation of our success; however bar a couple of flirtations with the latter stages in 2006 and 2009, the story has been one of repetitive frustration. For the past six seasons Arsenal have been eliminated at the first knockout stage each time; suggesting that they are certainly no closer to winning Europe’s flagship competition, if anything it feels like they are drifting further away.

Every year, the Gooner faithful is encouraged to rejoice once qualification for the European gravy train is secured for another year, admittedly this is often hilariously as a result of that lot from the Lane ‘Spurs-ing’ things up as only they can; but if we were to stop and think for a moment, is this really in itself a reason for celebration?

Are we jubilantly anticipating, like I used to in the days when qualification was a rarity, involvement in an exciting and prestigious competition in which maybe, just maybe, if things went our way, we could right a longstanding wrong? Or are we simply clinging onto our continued involvement as some form of consolation that we have achieved some level of success? That we still have some relevance amongst the European elite?

This evening Arsenal will run out at the Allianz Arena in an all too familiar scenario having faced the German juggernaut at this stage twice in the last four seasons; the only twist this time is that this is the opening leg and we go there with a clean state rather than already trailing in the tie. A glance at Bayern’s season to date might suggest that they are in something of a transitional period as Carlo Ancelloti works to introduce his philosophy and system, and it does seem that some of their dominance may have dwindled. However to eliminate the German champions over two legs will require a coolly constructed and perfectly executed tactical game plan, not something we normally expect from the Gunners. In all reality we go there in the hope of keeping the tie alive for the second leg and relying on the football gods to smile on us favorably in three weeks’ time.

Even in the unlikely event that Arsenal did avoid elimination at this stage yet again and find themselves in the quarter final draw for the first time since 2010; would we have any real confidence of a sustained run and a real tilt at winning the famous old trophy for the first time in our club’s history? A quick glance back over recent history would suggest that three of the teams that will make up the semi-final line-up will come from a pool of four or five clubs who have been there recently; the only variable, barring shock results like PSG’s demolition of Barcelona last night, being who plays who in the next round. Do we really believe this Arsenal side has the pedigree to really shake things up, to do what even the Invicibles failed to do and make their mark at the very pinnacle at the top of the European game?

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