Morning all, despite Franco’s best efforts, tonight sees the first Spanish invasion of Portugal in two centuries. In celebration of the Champions League final, today’s playlist is from Iberian bands and rather cracking it is too. Click here or use the Spotify widget in the right sidebar. If it was appropriate for this evening’s Madrid derby, even more so with the transfer talk firmly focussing on La Liga‘s finest joining Arsenal. Cesc, Griezmann, Vela, Juanfran; it would come as no surprise to find that Arsène has booked a villa on the Catalan coastline for a couple of weeks prior to flying to Brazil. Purely as a convenient base for transfer expeditions, you understand Ivan, and in no way is it a holiday; it’s all work, work, work. Would he have chorizo for breakfast?
Just over twelve months ago, I lamented how Arsenal were continually missing out on the FA Cup final. A year on, I had to edit that as we reached Wembley. So fate, if I do the same again today, do you think…? Yes, I know, it’s holding out for the same sort of superstitious nonsense that others hold out for.
In my adult life, I have been fortunate enough to see Arsenal win a European trophy, lose three. Two pre-Wenger, two during his reign; a nice symmetry, if you like that kind of thing. I do think back to the gut-wrenching disappointment of Paris. How did Thierry Henry not score at least one of the very presentable chances he was faced with? You can’t argue with Lehmann’s dismissal; I remain surprised the referee blew so quickly, particularly in this day and age when playing advantage is played so readily.
But for me, it isn’t the biggest disappointment in Arsène’s reign as far as Europe is concerned. It isn’t even Copenhagen, even if losing to Galatasaray still rankles. No, I always think the biggest missed opportunity was Chelsea in 2003/04. It was one of the weakest quartets of semi-finalists in many years. Certainly I believe Arsenal could have beaten Porto, Monaco and Deportivo. It’s subjective of course but you can’t help wondering how different things might have been, particularly Wenger’s record against Mourinho.
This was a team that Arsenal had beaten twice (2 – 1 on both occasions) in the Premier League. The DA Cup too, the same outcome, the same scoreline. Indeed, it had been twenty-two matches in all competitions since Chelsea had emerged victorious. Nothing could go wrong could it? But it did, despite Arsenal taking a, yes, you’ve guessed it, 2 – 1 aggregate lead. It completed a miserable week, the treble for which Arsenal seemed to be destined, was gone. I am sure the defeat to United and the performance that led to it, had a deeper impact than we hoped. Perhaps even feared given the brutality United meted out in the encounter. One of the consequences of the defeat was Freddie Ljungberg missing the second leg against Chelsea due to a broken hand.
It was/is a defeat that cuts to the bone, the opportunity missed.
So can Arsenal ever repeat reaching the final, to put things right as Atletico have the opportunity to do? Of course, you can never say never but as the players repeated the same mistakes in the Premier League, they and the manager have done in Europe repeatedly. Luck of the draw maybe in meeting the dominant teams but that is the price you pay for not winning the group. And even when they have won the group stage, they had a nightmare in Milan. European campaigns are following a predictable pattern, the only shaft of light this season came with the home victory over Napoli. The home legs are proving to be a problem with Schalke and Dortmund taking three points home with them. The results in both those return matches making defeat all the more galling.
I guess the question is whether you believe Arsenal over or under achieve in the competition. Is the last sixteen their natural position in the pecking order or should they be progressing further with the nearly twenty years of experience in the competition Domestic form in recent years – top three or four finishes – suggests that is their natural level, on a par with their peers in Spain and Germany, lagging behind those above the top three in those countries as well as their own. This year saw the gap close in the Premier League so should we expect more from Arsenal next year, presuming they qualify for the Champions League proper in the first place?
If Manchester United had qualified for next season’s tournament, Arsenal would be the lowest ranked of the top seeds, the next ones to drop into the second pot and I don’t think that we can argue with that happening; it’s the price of failure relative to UEFA’s complex system of coefficients. Continually reaching the last sixteen keeps Arsenal in that group on their own performances, the country rankings ensure it. Arsenal sit tenth for 2015 In the club rankings, falling to twelfth two years later, before intervening season’s performances are incorporated. That puts them into the second pot of seeds, a fair reflection of current achievement levels. Or a signal of significant over-achievement?
If we feel a sense of disappointment, imagine what it must be like for Wenger. The only manager to lose in the final of all three European competitions; an unenviable record, one unlikely to be equalled with the number who lost the cup winners cup finals still in gainful employment, diminishing by the season. To lose every final must be galling for him and leave a burning desire to rectify that perceived wrong. It would fill the hole in his CV, as the media so like to call such things. As if a manager of his standing has a CV.
The changing nature of Arsenal, of the wider European game, strike me as making it harder for the club to progress in this competition. Atletico prove it is possible with the right team, draw and tactics; their stars have aligned and it would be reassuring if they triumphed tonight, a victory over the excesses of the modern game. FFP has proven toothless with UEFA now procrastinating over whether Manchester City’s 21-man squad must include 13 homegrown players. Paris St Germain meanwhile pay £50m on a transfer, what was supposed to be the sum total of their original punishment negotiated away, along with the credibility of the financial regulations. Mistakenly, the governing body thought the bigger clubs would agree and comply, embarrassed that two of the richest drove a horse and cart through their pipedream of the perception of equality in football. No matter what contrivances Platini and his acolytes may put in place, the only place where that perception can become a reality of sorts, is on the pitch. Any bloody noses administered along the way are always welcome.