Champions League dreams or Arteta's ugly new reality? Arsenal face date with European destiny

Arteta Lacazette Xhaka Arsenal GFXGetty/Goal

“When you think of a future without Arsenal in European competition, it doesn't feel right.”

Those were the words of Bernd Leno ahead of the Gunners' crucial Europa League quarter-final second leg against Slavia Prague on Thursday night.

Arsenal go into the game knowing they have to score after last week’s 1-1 draw in north London.  Failure to do so and they are out; the prospect of failing to secure European qualification for the first time in more than 25 years staring them square in the face.

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There is still a chance of sneaking into the European places through the Premier League, but with Mikel Arteta’s side sitting ninth with just seven games remaining, that is looking unlikely.

There is no doubt that winning the Europa League is now Arsenal’s best chance of ensuring they will be back in continental competition next season. Arteta knows it and Leno does too.

“Arsenal belongs to Europe and that's our target,” said the Germany goalkeeper, who saw Tomas Holes’ injury-time header flash past him in the closing seconds of last week’s first leg in north London.

Up until that point, Arsenal had looked well set to go on and set up a semi-final meeting with either Villarreal or Dinamo Zagreb thanks to Nicolas Pepe’s excellent run and finish.

But Holes' late heroics for Slavia turned the tie on its head and left Arteta’s side to rue several missed chances which had gone begging earlier in the game .

Now they head to the home of the Czech champions with the tie, and potentially their summer spending ability, on a knife edge.

Win and their season is still alive. Lose and the ramifications will be costly.

“It's very important for us and this club,” Arteta admitted ahead of the match. “This game can put us in a position to go into the semi-final of a European competition. This is exactly where this club has to be and that's why we have to do our best to earn that.”

Bernd Leno

Like all clubs, Arsenal are trying to deal with huge financial difficulties that have been brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and the loss of fans on a match day.

The fact that the club had to take a £120 million ($160m) loan from the Bank of England in January  to help ease cashflow issues for the months leading up to the summer told its own story.

Arsenal have seen their revenues plummet due to the pandemic and the club’s cash reserves have now run dry, with matchday revenue - which usually accounts for 24 per cent of the club’s annual revenue - now non-existent due to games being played behind closed doors.

The latest club accounts, which were released in March, showed a loss of £47.8m ($66m), after tax, for the year ending May 2020.

Since the year end, Arsenal have refinanced its stadium finance bonds and have undertaken what they call "a range of cost-cutting measures", which they say will ensure they are "well placed to respond once the situation starts to improve".

But despite that, the club is still forecast to lose around £140m ($193m) for the year ending May 2021, due to the whole of the 2020-21 campaign being staged behind closed doors .

So money will understandably be tight once again this summer, and that is a problem that will only be exasperated by failure to secure European football next season.

Arteta’s transfer kitty would be bolstered massively, however, should Arsenal go on and win the Europa League and return to the Champions League for the first time since 2017.

“The financial package that is attached to it at the moment is really, really important,” admitted the Arsenal boss. 

"There was a lot going on in the last two transfer windows. The amount of things we had to do was probably unprecedented and it will be again in the summer.”

Arteta is desperate to continue to shake-up his squad at the end of the season,  with several players set to be moved on to help free up room for new faces.

Mikel Arteta

The Spaniard wants to try and make Martin Odegaard’s loan move from Real Madrid permanent,  but knows the Spanish champions would more than likely demand a fee in excess of £40m ($55m) for the playmaker.

Celtic striker Odsonne Edouard, meanwhile, is a target, but Arsenal will have to fight off rival interest from Leicester City to land the France Under-21 international.

The Gunners are also on the look out for a right-back, with Hector Bellerin potentially on his way out, as well as cover for Kieran Tierney at left-back and a central midfielder.

A new centre-back could also be needed, depending on whether David Luiz is given a new contract and what happens with William Saliba once his loan spell with Nice comes to an end.

The consequences of a defeat on Thursday, therefore, are huge. Going out may not define Arsenal’s summer plans, but it would certainly have a massive impact on what could be done when the window opens.

Arteta insists that he has not even considered the prospect of Arsenal having to spend a season outside of European competition.

“I don't want to put it in my mind or transmit it to any of the players or anybody at the club,” he said.

But given what is at stake, it seems almost impossible that the thought of being the first Arsenal manager since Bruce Rioch in 1995 to go into a season with only domestic matters to worry about would not have crossed his mind.

Arsenal had enough chances in the first leg against Slavia last week to ensure they could have enjoyed a relatively comfortable evening in the Czech capital on Thursday night.

But they fluffed their lines in front of goal, and now they go into the game knowing there is no more room for error. 

Get things wrong again, and the fall-out could be ugly. Both on and off the pitch.