On Thursday night, Arsenal take on Napoli in what, finally, feels like a proper European night. Carlo Ancelotti’s side will provide stern opposition in a tie that feels delicately balanced. The betting odds are finely split and when the teams met in the Champions League group stage in 2013, the Gunners prevailed 2-0 at the Emirates, while Napoli were 2-0 victors at the Stadio San Paolo.
To say the Europa League takes a little time to warm up is an exercise in understatement. Arsenal decided to make the BATE Borisov and Rennes ties vaguely interesting through first leg calamity. I was among those who felt Arsenal’s drop into Europe’s secondary competition might make a refreshing change, but the last two seasons have drummed that impression out of me quite firmly.
The Europa League group stages are, quite simply, the least entertaining ‘competitive’ football I have ever seen Arsenal play. I am someone that enjoys the charms of the League Cup, I don’t need much rousing to be excited about an Arsenal game. But I find those first six matches very tough going. Much like when I watch ‘Apocalypse Now’ and sagely nod along because I probably should enjoy that movie, but in reality, I have to sit on my hands to stop myself from ripping my eyeballs out through boredom. (Sorry, I have tried).
Arsenal are locked in a curious relationship with European football. We are in no position to turn our noses up at the Europa League given our less than illustrious record in European competition. Recent winners include Atletico Madrid, Manchester United and Chelsea, who did not regard winning the cup as beneath them. The 1994 Cup Winners Cup triumph is, as I wrote a couple of years ago, the most underrated Arsenal triumph of my generation.
Yet the early rounds of the Cup Winners Cup were hardly ‘all killer, no filler’. A 10-0 aggregate win over Standard Liege and a sleepy tie against Odense preceded memorable nights against PSG and Parma. However, times have changed and the differences in standard between the Europa League and the Champions League are starker than ever, with the premier competition stockpiling the continent’s great and good.
Arsenal are caught in a holding pattern where they are trying to win a tournament they don’t want to be in so they can partake in a tournament they can’t possibly win. Indeed, one of the key incentives for winning the Europa League is the automatic qualification for the Champions League that it brings. Arsenal stand a good chance of winning the secondary competition, but the problem is, let’s be honest, it’s not hugely entertaining and April is the earliest that we can expect a mouth-watering draw.
Only the Atleti semi-final tie felt remotely life affirming in last season’s competition and the Spanish side dropped out of the Champions League. That Champions League teams drop into the Europa is another quite surreal concession to its status as Europe’s wooden spoon. Now, personally, the ‘prestige’ factor does not hugely matter to me, as a supporter. I just wish the tournament were a bit more fun overall. First world problems, no doubt, but the sense of ennui lingers. (Sorry, I have tried).
The Premier League now has six Champions League knockout level sides, grappling for four places in UEFA’s top tier competition. This has injected renewed purpose into the Premier League’s ‘race for the top four.’ It became easy to become as haughty towards finishing fourth as I have been towards the Europa League in this article, when the Gunners qualified, by hook or by crook, year on year.
A couple of years outside the Champions League has knocked that sense of complacency out of us. But the fact that Arsenal are competing with Sp*rs, Chelsea and Manchester United for a qualifying spot has injected a much needed sense of rivalry and purpose into what is effectively a scrap for wider profit margins.
And let’s face it, the Champions League group stages only marginally outstrips its Europa League cousin in the fun stakes. Group stage football is a solely for profit venture, but you could argue that Arsenal participating in the Champions League at all would constitute a solely for profit venture. There is more chance of me shitting a golden egg than there is of Arsenal winning the Champions League.
But two years outside of it and the club trying to panic buy their way back in have left some visible stains on the balance sheet. Arsenal are minding a Champions League wage bill with little resale value in the squad. They have tossed the car keys onto the table and gambled their short-term future with the salaries meted out to Mesut Özil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. They have to re-qualify to replenish their budget and fund the squad refurbishment they so desperately need.
Lest we forget the club regarded its fiscal health as so poor that they couldn’t spare a single penny for transfers in January. (I’ll wait for that single tear to dry on your cheek). So we are left with the bizarre situation of thirsting after a competition where we can only ever hope to be also-rans. In a sense, what Arsenal are fighting for is promotion- like teams that fight their way out of the Championship so they can fight relegation from the Premier League.
On the Arsenal Vision Podcast recently, we recorded a ‘Would You Rather?’ episode. Among the hypothetical questions we set ourselves, ‘Would you rather win the Europa League or get to the quarter-finals of the Champions League?’ It’s another of those questions where the answer is complicated by the absurd realities of modern football, where money inescapably rules the roost and basic logic bends in subservience to it.
A potentially challenging, competitive quarter-final tie against Napoli sounds a hell of a lot more entertaining than getting our arses tanned by Barcelona or Bayern Munich. That said, Arsenal’s absence from the Champions League seems to have coincided with the super clubs weakening and the tournament has improved immeasurably as a result, with a procession of unlikely comebacks and drama dominating the narrative of the knockout rounds, even at the last 16 stage.
It has been difficult not to look on enviously. Whatever our own personal feelings about the Europa League and the Champions League, we all know where Arsenal strives to be and why it’s essential for the club’s prospects. As we anticipate a potentially exciting tie against Napoli, in a tournament Arsenal stands a chance of winning, supporters nevertheless juggle with an awkward existential dilemma of trying to win a tournament so that we can part company with it.