The last time Arsenal went beyond the round of 16 in the Champions League was in 2009/10 when we lost our first leg game to Porto 2-1 – memorable for a Lukas Fabianski performance that was straight from the draw marked ‘WTF?!’.
However, a hat-trick from The Greatest Striker That Ever Lived helped us to a 5-0 win in the home tie and our reward for that stirring performance was Barcelona. The first leg was drawn 2-2 before we went to the Camp Nou and got Messi-d right up the jacksy, he scored all their goals in a 4-1 win.
Since then it’s been round of 16 every time. The following year was Barcelona again and the home leg provided that sensational 2-1 win. Andrei Arshavin, at that point still just about a footballer, scored a goal which still resonates to this day. The explosion of noise after he got on the end of a stunning Arsenal break is one of the great European moments of recent times, but in the return leg van Persie got sent off, Messi scored twice and we went out.
The Milan debacle came in 2011-12, a quite horrible performance away almost salvaged at home with a 3-0 win but it was too much to ask. Bayern Munich won 3-1 at our place the next year but the away leg was a game which sticks in the memory a bit because it felt like there was a shift in approach from Arsene Wenger. We set up defensively, scored early, rode our luck a bit, scored again, and in the end Bayern ran the ball into corners because they knew another Arsenal goal would see us through – it was away goals that did it in the end.
Last season some Robben diving and a brave effort to keep them out after being down to 10 men for so long resulted in a 2-0 defeat at home, but there was a credible 1-1 draw at their place. But since reaching the semi-finals in 2008-9, our European exploits can be summed up by moments rather than results. Valiant failure rather than genuine success.
We’ve beaten Barcelona, we’ve beaten AC Milan, we’ve beaten Bayern Munich, but in the grand scheme of things those results were too little too late. This season’s competition has, perhaps, opened the door for us to go a little further. The frustration of throwing away a 3-0 lead against Anderlecht was palpable, finishing second in your group is usually a sure-fire way of drawing one of the big boys in the first knock-out round.
For once, however, the hot balls were favourable to us when the draw was made. Monaco is far, far preferable to what might have been. That’s not to say it’ll be easy. The French side have lost only once in their last 17 games conceding just 3 goals, a decent run of form and the kind of defensive parsimony that would have George Graham turning giddy circles.
Yet when you consider it might have been Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich, I don’t think there can be any complaints. But it’s important that we make the most of a rare piece of decent fortune. It’s not as if we don’t have the players to make other teams worried.
There was that fantastic picture from the FA Cup game against Boro that makes you realise how much progress we’ve made with this squad over the last couple of seasons. When you see this trio lined up together discussing who’s going to take a free kick, it doesn’t exactly make you pine for the days of Denilson, Song and TGSTEL.
The supporting cast is a lot better too. Around those three we can add Giroud, Welbeck, Walcott and, when fit, Oxlade-Chamberlain. The midfield is better balanced, there isn’t a Sylvester at the back to make you hold your head in your hands every time his name appears on a team-sheet, the full-backs are battling with each other for a place in the team, and the goalkeeping situation is, at least, competitive if still a bit of grey area overall.
Now, I’m realistic. I don’t expect us to go and win the Champions League this season, but I think it’s important for us to make some progress in the competition after some years of stagnation. Regardless of those brief interludes of happiness and encouragement we could take from certain games and certain performances, the stark reality is that we’ve crashed out at the round of 16 for the last four seasons.
Maybe, in some weird way, due to the competitive nature of the Premier League and the level of our squad, it wasn’t the worst thing that happened to us. No midweek distraction meant we could focus fully on the battle for the top four and fewer games meant fewer injuries and absences, but now we look like we have a group of players that should be capable of balancing both those challenges. We ought to have a squad that can do that.
That’s why this week’s game, and the tie overall, is so important. We’re not yet up with the big boys, but the gap is nowhere near as wide as it once was, and we’ve got to show we’re not the soft touch we’ve appeared to be over the last number of seasons. There’s something special about a European night as the Champions League progresses to its final stages, it’s been too long since we’ve enjoyed one, so let’s hope this year is the year we make that happen.
The manager will meet the press today, we’ll have all the news from the press conference etc on Arseblog News throughout the day.
Finally, last night there was a special screening of an Invincibles documentary which is due to screen on Sky Sports on Wednesday night.
To mark the occasion, we’ve got a sale on the digital version of Together: the story of Arsenal’s unbeaten season. It’s available for a mere £3 (more or less due to variable pricing structures of the retailers), and it tells the story of that amazing campaign from start to finish. You can get it from the outlets below for less than the price of a silly coffee. Do it!
And if you missed yesterday’s Arsecast Extra, it’s packed full of stuff about Arsenal, referees, Jose Mourinho (stuff you want to hear and not the usual crap you get about what a character he is), and loads more. Check it out here.