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The Gunners are competing on European football's grandest platform for the 15th year in a row but a series of unglamorous draws has begun to affect group stage attendances

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By Gingers4Limpar | Arsenal blogger

When a small club beats the odds to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League, its fans inevitably dream of glamorous floodlit clashes against European giants.

Supporters of minnows such as CFR Cluj, FC Nordsjaelland and Tottenham have all seen their boys heroically break into the coveted competition in recent seasons, even if the latter so tragically missed out this time around. Such breakthroughs, when they happen, are no doubt met with giddy excitement over potential trips to Camp Nou or San Siro.

Yet for Arsenal fans, currently enjoying the team's 15th consecutive year in the Champions League proper, there can sometimes be a sense of tedious familiarity during the group stages. While the Gunners have taken part in some thrilling early ties, there have been far more comfortable wins over admittedly weak opposition from the various corners of the continent.

ARSENAL'S GROUP-STAGE OPPONENTS

2009-10
Olympiakos
Standard Liege
AZ Alkmaar
2010-11
Shakhtar Donetsk
Braga
Partizan Belgrade
2011-12
Borussia Dortmund
Marseille
Olympiakos
Wednesday's home game against Olympiakos – the third time in four seasons that Arsenal have faced the Greek champions – is a case in point.

Despite being able to sell out an incredible 60,000 seats for last week's League Cup match against League One Coventry, there were still tickets on general sale for this Champions League game as recently as Friday. And, as of Tuesday, the day before the game, many hundreds of season-ticket holders were trying to flog their seats for the game via the club's online exchange system.

Unlike some teams, Arsenal do not struggle to sell out home games – yet when one considers that this is supposedly Europe's premier competition, it is notable that their first Champions League home tie of the season has provoked such sluggish activity at the club's box office. I expect that a notable number of unoccupied red seats will be visible on Wednesday evening.

When my season-ticket buddies and I decide who is going to which games, there is often a palpable indifference, a Thierry Henry-esque shrug, when we come to home legs against the likes of Olympiakos, Montpellier, and even Schalke. "Do you mind taking Olympiakos, Terry?" I'll ask, to which Terry will mutter back nothing more zealous than an "alright".

Frankly, these matches often seem secondary compared to early season Premier League clashes. As a fan I have been far more nervous in the run-up to Arsenal's meetings with Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and, next, West Ham, than prior to either of their opening couple of Champions League encounters.

And the casual sense of indifference can even extend to team selection. During last season's home tie against Olympiakos, Arsene Wenger rested three first-teamers, including the now-unmentionable R*b*n v*n P*rs*e, and instead granted starts to Marouane Chamakh and the teenage duo of Emmanuel Frimpong and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Arsenal, incidentally, were chasing their first win of the group stage, having conceded a late equaliser to Borussia Dortmund in the opening game. Yet, with Wenger serving one of the increasingly common and absurd Uefa touchline bans, he nonetheless had the confidence to rest key players. And his Gunners, lo and behold, won the game.

I am probably tempting fate with such an analysis. Given my luck, the Arsenal will likely now succumb to a thrilling yet devastating 6-3 defeat in Wednesday's game.

But the wider point stands, that Arsenal frequently find themselves cruising through relatively unchallenging groups, often up against the same old foes (our boys have a strange tendency to get drawn against Porto, for example).

Even if Arsenal somehow manage to lose – and you can get 8/1 on it happening – it will be the first time that they have ever lost the second group-stage game, according to the club's statistician, Josh James.

Little surprise, then, that Arsenal have qualified for the knockout stages for 13 consecutive seasons.

Traditionalists will complain that the modern Champions League format, since it evolved from the European Cup, is culpable for this situation. It does, inevitably, favour clubs like Arsenal, who are capable of finishing in the top four every season but without the guarantee (or, these days, likelihood) of actually winning the title.
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And it is also true that the lucrative cash generated from having several group-stage games to rely on helps teams like Olympiakos pull away from their domestic rivals – a situation which could arguably lead to the same old teams qualifying and thus similar-looking groups from year to year (even if the likes of Spurs and Nordsjaelland occasionally break through).

Yet, as ever in life, one should be careful over that about which one complains. Despite its faults and the occasionally tedious group stage, the competition nonetheless produces some terrific drama. The exits of Manchesters United and City during the final group games of last season showed that, despite Arsenal's success, the first stage is not always easy and uneventful.

And last season also saw the Gunners, once into the knockout stages, taking part in perhaps the competition’s most exhilarating two-legged tie – a narrow 4-3 aggregate defeat to AC Milan. The Champions League more often than not provides us with great football and has also succeeded in warding off moves for a more comprehensive "European League", which was at one time threatening to erode the continent's top domestic divisions.

The competition remains a big feast, with everyone wanting a place at the top table. As Arsenal fans, we should be grateful to stuff our faces year in, year out, even if games such as Wednesday's are sometimes less than appetising.

While the group stage may appear like a bland starter of mushroom soup, we know that the real treats lie ahead. And there is always a very slight glimmer of hope that, at the end of it all, with the hosts drunk and distracted, we can make off with the silverware. As that lot up the road will tell you – the alternative is sitting at home with a Pot Noodle and watching 'Eastenders'.

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