Arsene Wenger will rue errors if they go out early
© Getty Images
When Arsenal await the draw for the last-16 of the Champions League next Friday, they will have only themselves to blame if they pull out one of Europe’s elite. The inevitability of a clash against Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich is amplified by the fact that the Gunners can only draw four clubs after finishing second in their group.
Unable to be paired against group winners from England - Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham - or the team that finish top of their own group - Shakhtar - German side Schalke represent Arsenal’s best chance of making it through to the quarter-finals; but it is a slim hope.
‘’If you want to win it, you have to play against these big teams,’’ said Wenger on his side’s next potential fixture, before adding: "First of all, it is not a guarantee that we play Barcelona or Bayern in the next round - there are some other teams we can play and what happens, happens.’’
True, it is not guaranteed, but a 75% chance of picking out an elite club is not favourable. Realistically, the Frenchman would have wanted to avoid three of the best clubs in the world at this stage and will be praying for Bundesliga strugglers Schalke.
But, after winning the first three group games and losing the following two matches, Wenger must admit that he has thrown away the chance of an easier ride, especially as February’s first-round ties come at a time in the season when resources are stretched and the games come thick and fast.
In the latter stages of the Champions League (as the saying goes) ‘there are no small games’, but when you consider that Inter, Lyon, Copenhagen, Valencia, Roma, AC Milan and Marseille could have awaited, it is obvious that the Gunners have missed a good opportunity to progress.
Of course, Arsenal have the ability to beat any team on their day, but recent history in the competition suggests that they struggle when up against the bigger teams. Over the last three years, Liverpool, Manchester United and Barcelona have all knocked them out, while PSV Eindhoven, Bayern Munich and Chelsea put paid to their efforts in years past and, on the biggest stage of all, the 2006 final, they fell at the last hurdle against Barcelona.
With the English equation taken out, of the four potential opponents, Wenger will, of course, be most wary of the Spanish champions. Lionel Messi destroyed the Gunners on his own last season and they will require a much more physical and reserved performance if they are to triumph (as entertaining a game as it was.) Real Madrid have shown cracks in their armour, but Arsenal failed to beat Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at all in his three years in England, while Bayern’s league struggles have been tempered by an impressive record in Europe. All tough tests, that could have been avoided.
Arsenal, though, are not the only ones who have themselves to blame if they get a bad draw on Friday. Inter boss Rafael Benitez opted to rest his stars for the 3-0 defeat to Werder Bremen - claiming it was in preparation for Club World Cup games that don’t start for another week - meaning they finished second in Group A behind Spurs and are now faced with Chelsea, Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern; although at least the possibility of drawing Schalke or Shakhtar exists.
Still, if the balls do not fall favourably, Wenger and Benitez can, for once, have little to complain about.