By Liam Twomey
Arsene Wenger might well have looked, aghast, at Thursday’s devilish Champions League draw and wondered what on earth he has done to deserve such misfortune. For many Arsenal fans, the things he hasn’t done are what really made events in Monte Carlo seem so devastating.
To progress to the knockout stages of Europe’s elite club competition for the 15th of 16 seasons, the Gunners must fire their way past French giants Marseille, last season’s Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund and Rafa Benitez’s formidable-looking Napoli.
It’s not quite a ‘Group of Death’ but one which leaves the majority of Arsenal fans feeling anything but optimistic after another summer of broken promises and frustration.
This was supposed to be the year the red half of north London rejoined the elite in earnest, rather than simply making up the numbers. Money was pledged, signings were promised and spirits were raised, but despite three early season wins, the gradual realisation of misplaced hope has only deepened the long-standing malaise which has surrounded the club for too long.
Rather than signings, the only news stories Arsenal fans can expect are new injury worries. Thursday’s revelation that Lukas Podolski will be out for 10 weeks might have shocked Wenger, but it surprised few others familiar with the club’s perennial injury crisis.
If Wenger had overcome his own crippling caution and all-consuming desire to micro-manage every single aspect of his club, Group F would surely hold fewer fears. Gonzalo Higuain would have entered the Emirates Stadium as a beacon of hope rather than a fearsome threat, for a start.
Napoli have lost Edinson Cavani, but gained a Champions League-winning manager in Rafa Benitez and a stronger and infinitely more well-rounded squad, spearheaded by the industrious creativity of Marek Hamsik and the deadly penalty box eye of Higuain.
Dortmund saw Mario Gotze, their golden boy, spirited away by their rivals, but still refused to stand still. Robert Lewandowski will be a huge asset once again, while summer arrivals Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have arguably given them more options than they had in a year they shocked Europe by making the Champions League final.
Arsenal have had no high-profile departures to deal with, no rebuilding job to undertake. They began the summer in a position of greater strength than their Group F rivals, but have conspired to stand still while every other ambitious club in the continent has strengthened.
It is logical to assume Wenger might feel aggrieved when he looks at how Thursday’s draw treated the Premier League’s three other representatives. Chelsea could not have hoped for better than Schalke, Basel and Steaua Bucharest. Group A should hold no real fears for Manchester United, while bitter rivals City should progress along with holders Bayern Munich.
But in reality the Gunners should have seen this coming. The Champions League group stage has been kind to them over the years – perhaps too kind. Over the past five seasons the average ranking of their opponents has been 55, and none of the teams they have faced made it past the quarter-finals. They still only topped their group twice.
If anything, the benevolence of fate has allowed Wenger to artificially inflate his achievements in Europe’s premier club competition in recent seasons. They have qualified for the knockout stages in every season since 2007 - and even reached the quarter-finals in 2010 - in spite of only beating one team ranked in the top eight in six seasons.
Anyone could have realised this luck would run out eventually, and planned accordingly. But it seems Wenger did not, or simply could not bring himself to change the methods which have seen Arsenal achieve consistency of mediocrity for the past eight years.
Of course, the Gunners still stand a fighting chance of progressing to the knockout stages once more. They have an excellent record against French opposition, Napoli may need time to gel and Dortmund’s open, attacking style may suit them. For all the problems, they remain a good side.
But transfer paralysis means any success will come less readily than it could have and arguably should have. With Arsenal these days, any setback seems like a crisis.
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