Well that didn’t go to plan. By the time Arsenal’s name came out of the hat, everyone was looking to late March and the quarter-final stage. Monaco as opponents, the weakest of the group winners, was all that we could wish for, although to be fair Porto weren’t far behind.
For Arsène, it’s a return to his French footballing home and the papers are milking it this morning with his glory days relived. The departure is almost glossed over as is the Marseilles bribery scandal that seared a hatred of financial doping into his psyche. For a club still scarred by the actions of a former manager, Wenger’s conservative approach was – and remains – alluring, even if Arsenal’s majority shareholder is doting for different reasons.
It’s also a hiding to nothing for Arsenal. It’s a tie that they are expected to win and win comfortably over the two legs even at these times of inconsistency. A single goal defeat in a pre-season friendly might give everyone connected with the Monégasque a hint of hope but let’s be honest, Napoli probably thought that despite ceding a two-goal lead, when the group draws were made last season but it proved meaningless.
Defeat doesn’t bear thinking about to be honest. Even the alarm bells which rang through an ailing Dortmund winning the group well before the last fixture have been muted now the next opponents are known. I kid myself into thinking this might be a good year, that Arsenal have taken on board the lessons of the Italian national team when I grew up; do enough to qualify and then get better as the tournament progresses.
More than anything, it is nice to break the monotony of seeing Arsenal face Bayern or Barcelona and not just because of the regularity of defeat. Europe beyond the big clubs does exist, even if UEFA are determined to prove it doesn’t.
Consecutive 4 – 1 victories have lifted some of the pall around Arsenal but the underlying shortcomings remain as they always do. Every season is a case of how well they can be papered over, not just by Arsenal but every club; the Champions are invariably those whose strengths far outweigh others weaknesses. By that time, the hope is that reinforcements will have arrived from the medical room and the transfer window to give the season some semblance of sanity.
The first inkling of which come with the prospect of Theo Walcott returning to the bench for the weekend’s visit to Anfield. Hopefully, his setback on the road to recovery has been suffered and despite a heavy fixture schedule, there is no reason for him to be rushed back. The versatility in the Arsenal forward line is there to allow Walcott fifteen minutes here and there rather than being thrown in for an hour or more straight from the off.
Further hope comes with the recent photos of Mesut Özil. For a split second I thought, “Wow, he’s well ahead of schedule” only to be snapped out of it by, “Dad, for Christmas, I’d like…” Even so, the prospect of a January return is very real and in the attacking sense, the squad is in a lot better shape for it.
The same is true of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The rapier thrust of brushing aside the early speculation turned out to be little more than a defensive parry. The midfielder will be fit for Anfield according to unnamed club sources but The Guardian notes that it will be with the help of an injection. In other words, he isn’t fit but he can be patched up and sent into battle. He doesn’t have much choice either, there is no sign of anyone who can be considered a first team regular, stepping into the breach.
Despite the irritation of the defeat, losing to Southampton in the League Cup is proving to be something of a blessing in disguise as much as Liverpool’s travails. By now, we should be looking at continuous reruns of the drubbing received last time we travelled to Anfield. Their descent into the bottom half of the table has occupied media minds more, losing to Bournemouth would be a huge favour in that respect as well.
Whether there would be a backlash on Sunday doesn’t matter. In those situations, it’s up to Arsenal to dictate from the off. Stoke undid the defence last week using the same lightning fast start, Arsenal did the same against Newcastle, instantly assuming control. Sunday might be about fighting fire with fire, something we haven’t done away from home this season. It’s certainly about scoring a few goals, single goal victories seem so unlikely at the moment.
But then again, does the scoreline matter as long as Arsenal have more goals than their opponents.