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Arsenal had already qualified for the knock-out stages of the Champions League in their penultimate group game but missed out on topping their group due to poor team selection.

 Brendon Netto
 Comment |England
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Considering their recent form, Arsenal’s away defeat to Olympiakos in their final Champions League group encounter came as no surprise. What’s worrying is that the second string side fielded by Arsene Wenger was no more than expected. Having already qualified for the next round, it was common knowledge that the Frenchman would opt to utilize his fringe players but given that there was the ‘small matter’ of winning the group at stake, it’s disappointing that the Arsenal boss chose not to pursue that advantage as fervently as most managers would.

Sebastien Squillaci and Marouane Chamakh were given an opportunity to impress against the Greek outfit but much like they have done throughout their careers in North London, they only served to produce uninspiring performances. Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin were also afforded rare starts while Jernade Meade was handed a European debut.

Fringe players were given a chance

The Arsenal bench was probably the weakest they have named in the Champions League. Apart from Andrey Arshavin, the rest of the substitutes had just three senior appearances between them with most still to make their debuts.

Granted, securing top spot in the group was out of their hands but Schalke’s 1-1 draw away to Montpellier means that an Arsenal victory would have seen the Gunners leapfrog the German outfit to top the group. Any manager who genuinely strives to be successful in Europe’s elite competition would have pounced at the opportunity knowing that any sort of advantage must be ceased. After all, CFR Cluj and Chelsea will testify that the margins are extremely fine in this tournament having been eliminated courtesy of the head-to-head rule.

Arsenal fans may be comfortable with the fact that they safely qualified for the next round as they have done consecutively for the last 13 years but their side may well have a far greater task ahead of them now. Had they won their group, the London club would have had FC Porto, FC Shakhtar Donetsk, Valencia and Celtic among their potential opponents for the knock-out stages but having settled for second-best, they must now face the possibility of tussling with the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona instead.

Arsenal may face tougher opposition in the next round

The argument can always be made that Wenger was simply prioritizing their weekend fixture with West Bromwich Albion in an attempt to arrest their current nose dive on the domestic front. Although that is a relatively important game, it hardly takes precedence over being group winners in the Champions League if you are serious about challenging for it.

All signs point to the reality that Arsenal are in fact not in it to win it. Although Wenger may not realize it, his calculative approach could well be holding back this side. Practically speaking, Arsenal’s shortcomings this season indicate that they are not equipped to stake a claim for the European title but how often has football defied all logic?

In the 2004-05 season, a run of three games was Liverpool’s longest winning streak in the league and as a result of losing Michael Owen to Real Madrid, goals were at a premium. However, their European exploits were a welcome distraction from their domestic form and despite finishing 5th in the league they went on to lift the coveted trophy. Similarly, a sluggish and aging Chelsea side overcame the might of Napoli, Barcelona and Bayern Munich to win the prestigious tournament last season in spite of finishing 6th in the league.

Chelsea beat the odds to win last season

The Champions League trophy truly is the Holy Grail and Liverpool fans along with the Chelsea ones will tell you that they will always treasure their clubs’ European success despite having to compromise their league position.

Even from a more calculative perspective, it makes sense to go all out in an attempt to win your group. Arsenal fans are sometimes aggrieved at the quality of oppositions they draw in the group stages and aren’t the only ones to complain of other sides regularly drawing groups that are considered to be easier. However, even that is in their hands for the most part. Manchester United and Barcelona frequently manage to draw these so-called ‘easier’ groups but that is down to their top seeding in Europe.

Arsenal camp lacks winning mentality

In the last six seasons, United have reached the semi-finals twice and the finals thrice, winning the competition once. While Barcelona have won the tournament thrice in the last seven seasons and got as far as the semi-finals on three occasions as well. Their success in the competition has made United and Barcelona two of the top seeds in Europe, affording them a better chance of avoiding the bigger teams in the group stages. If Arsenal were to take the competition more seriously, they too could eventually be among the highest ranked teams according to UEFA.

Then again, Arsenal have distorted into a club devoid of ambition and their seven-year trophy drought is irrefutable evidence of that. Wenger’s decision to be content with second place in their group signifies the absence of a winning mentality in the Arsenal camp, a mind-set that is essential to a team of champions. Their obsession with maintaining the bottom-line on the financial front has cost them their ability and desire to be winners and that is the depressing truth. The Gunners no longer fearlessly chase glory but rather tentatively prod at the prospect of lingering on the periphery of the truly big clubs.

Have Arsenal lost that ambition to succeed over the years? Leave your comments below or discuss with the writer on Twitter @BrendonNetto.

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