So, the Europa League group stage passes the halfway point this week and three games in, the question is “do you miss the Champions League?”
The answer is no. But then you knew that was coming. Regular readers know I dislike the group stage format and seeding. Platini’s sop to smaller nations to make them feel more included in the competition was revealed early on. It ensured the ‘big boys’, the moneymakers, always reached the knockout stage, keeping the cow firmly fed in cash.
There’s been something refreshing about the lesser of the two European competitions and yes, that has to do with us winning. We were quite good in the group stage in the big boys competition but at times, dishevelled.
Bayern two years ago is the obvious answer but Zagreb is more comparable to now. The weakened side fielded then collapsed; now, we are three points away from qualifying for the next phase. This week could even see us guaranteed top spot in the group with two games remaining.
It’s going swimmingly in terms of results. A bit iffy in the first half against Köln and numbing against Red Star but both games were won. You can’t ask more from a makeshift team.
If we are guaranteed top spot in the group, does that afford Arsène more opportunities to rotate his side? Give some untested youngsters a step up; maybe Osei-Tutu on the right? The options are there if results go to plan.
That is a big ‘if’. We know from painful experience what happens to ‘ifs’ in European competition; they usually end up facing Bayern Munich or Barcelona in the Round of Sixteen. This season, we will face a new nemesis, a team regarded as lesser or beatable; a peer.
Turning Me Around
Whether you like it or not, the Europa League is our level. If we’re going to talk competitive football, then we are a Europa League team. We’re 11/2 to win the tournament; Milan are second favourites at 9/2. William Hill bookies think it’s ours to throw away.
In the knockout phase of the Champions League, we’re an Andorra, San Marino or Gibraltar; beaten and battered at every turn, slow to learn the lessons and repeating the same mistakes time and again. It will get better eventually but not for this generation of players.
Do we accept this is our level for the remainder of Arsène’s tenure? Aim for the Champions League places every season, knowing we can occasionally make the top four but always the top six (which ought to get us into the Europa League)? Some would argue we should reach for the stars, try to win the Premier League and Champions League.
The trouble is, we know we’re not going to do it. Leicester’s title win was the wake-up call the elite needed. Manchester United won the Europa League last season, using it as a platform, a brace for soccer success. We must do the same.
We then as a club have to ask the question of ourselves: is it better to be in the Champions League and lose in the first knockout phase or be in the Europa League and compete for trophy. It’s a big assumption because we haven’t done so yet and we may fall flat on our faces when the Champions League teams drop into the competition.
However, I do believe we can compete with any of the teams likely to finish third in their group.
Two decades in the Champions League and years of derision over Spursday Night Football damaged the Europa League in our fans eyes. We got spoilt and now like petulant children, we’re trash-talking the competition.
It’s a British thing, like the Super Cup. Other European countries value the two trophies, we look down on them. Maybe it’s just an Arsenal thing.
Holding Me Down
Financially, we’re better off in the Champions League but that money is it was recently claimed, being dwarfed by the broadcasting revenues. It has less impact now than it did a decade ago when the Emirates was first opened. It can’t be ignored, particularly for a club which relies on a self-sufficient model.
Combine that and a majority shareholder who has no intention of investing in the club, and this is our lot. Stan’s mediocrity lands.
However, this presumes Arsène remains in charge. The lethargy in Europe is a striking feature of his CV; always the bridesmaid, etc., as far as that is concerned. It’s been raked over in the past but never satisfactorily explained; is it simply a quirk of fate he will suffer as a manager?
This season offers him as good an opportunity as any to rectify that problem.