With Arsenal on the brink of being knocked at the last-16 stage of the Champions League for the sixth successive season, it is clear that something has to change in order for Arsene Wenger’s men to take the next step in Europe.
Though the Frenchman’s record of getting Arsenal into the Champions League and through the group stage is impeccable, a club of Arsenal’s stature and experience needs to be getting to the latter stages of the tournament on a regular basis to be seen as a real European force. Since they lost to the same opposition in the 2006 final, their presence in the tournament has reduced.
This week's defeat to a Lionel Messi-inspired Barcelona was all too familiar for the Gunners, and Wenger even admitted that the Catalan giants are "95%" of the way to knocking Arsenal out for the third time in six years.
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For Arsenal, the problem on these big European nights has never been creating chances. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain missed a glorious chance to put them ahead in the first-half, scuffing his effort straight at Barca ‘keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen when any kind of elevation in the shot would have beaten him.
Olivier Giroud also saw his header well saved by the young German in the second half and despite a slow start, the reigning champions moved up the gears late on to reinforce the fact that clinical finishing is what sets teams apart at the top.
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Barcelona were wasteful themselves, with Luis Suarez missing the target with a free header on the stroke of half-time and hitting the post later on with Petr Cech beaten. Yet the tie only needed two meaningful contributions in the final 20 minutes from Messi to be effectively over, as a ball-starved Arsenal began to tire.
Wenger was furious as his midfielders failed to track the run of Neymar as Barca countered, and he duly fed Messi to get the first crucial away goal. Whereas most players would have shot first time, with Cech scrambling across his box and defensive cover arriving on the line, the Argentine had the composure to take a touch to put the ‘keeper off balance and ensure his effort was off the ground to reduce Nacho Monreal’s chances of getting to it.
The second goal of the night was also a combination of Arsenal error and Messi awareness. Per Mertesacker’s poor judgement from a cross enabled him to sneak in, and after substitute Mathieu Flamini brought him down, he converted his second from the spot.
Having never scored against Cech in their six previous meetings whilst the keeper was at Chelsea, Messi scored two in 13 second-half minutes in their first match since the 33-year-old transferred across London.
The primary cause of Arsenal’s failings at this stage of the tournament is their own inability to top their group and as a result, reduce the likelihood of drawing such a tough opponent first up.
This year was slightly different because they contested their group with Bayern, who were always strong favourites to top it. And having lost three of their four opening group games, they were just grateful to emerge from the group, never mind win it.
But Arsenal have had easier groups in the past and still finished second which has made it hard for themselves. The benefits of finishing first in your group can still be very limited as Chelsea would point out with their tie against PSG, but Manchester City’s case is the best example of why it is so important.
City’s European inexperience, and resulting low seeding, has given them hard groups year after year in which they have finished second at best. But this year they have taken the next step and topped their group, meaning they avoided Barca and Bayern and were handed a very favourable tie against Dynamo Kiev.
Arsenal have to ensure they follow suit in next year’s campaign to give themselves the best chance of going far in the Champions League. They are still in with a great chance of winning the Premier League this season, and it could be argued either way for which competition Wenger would prefer to win if he had to choose.
There is no doubt though that Arsenal have the squad to at least compete for both, but to be successful in Europe, they must stop doing things the hard way and that begins in the group stage.
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