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Arsenal discover there really are no easy games in Europe

On the face of it, Arsenal fans have much to be depressed about after today’s Champions League quarter-final draw. Being paired with Barcelona, champions of Spain, Europe and indeed the world, is disappointing enough. But a competitive record that reads played three, drawn one, lost two makes the task for Arsene Wenger’s men appear even more insurmountable. After all, statistics don’t lie.

Or do they?

Firstly, history is never the most reliable predictor of future performance. Of the eleven players who started the 2006 Champions League final for Arsenal only three – Emmanuel Eboue, Sol Campbell and Cesc Fabregas – are still at the club. Campbell (the scorer of Arsenal’s only goal that night) has also played for Portsmouth and Notts County during the interim and Eboue (who dubiously won the free kick from which Campbell scored) is now more of a super-sub than a starter. It’s the same picture if you look at Barcelona’s starting XI – goalscorers Samuel Eto’o and Juliano Belletti are now at Inter Milan and Chelsea respectively, and other star names such as Ronaldinho, Ludovic Giuly, Mark van Bommel and Deco have also long since moved on. The two sides who will meet at the Emirates in under a fortnight’s time are almost unrecognisable from the teams who played that night in Paris. So any historical comparisons should be taken with a large pinch of salt – or better still, ignored completely.

Even if you do take history into consideration, a more detailed examination of those three previous games provides clear signs of encouragement for the English side.

Let’s start with the 2006 Champions League final. Arsenal played for more than 70 minutes with ten men after goalkeeper Jens Lehmann was (rightly) sent off and took a 37th minute lead through Campbell’s header. It was an advantage they held until the final quarter of an hour, when substitute Henrik Larsson turned the game in Barca’s favour, with the equaliser carrying a strong hint of offside to it. To be fair, the better team won on the night, but Arsenal – a man down – had put in a great battling performance, and with a squad which (like this season’s one) had been largely written off mid-season.

The other two meetings took place during the Champions League group phase of the 1999/2000 season. A late Kanu goal earned Arsenal a 1-1 draw in Barcelona – so, if you want to look at it another way, Arsenal are unbeaten at Camp Nou – and although they lost the ‘home’ leg 4-2, the match was effectively played on a neutral ground, Wembley, rather than Highbury. So, again, applying the kind of spin Peter Mandelson would be proud of, Arsenal are actually unbeaten home and away against Barcelona.

Doesn’t seem too bad when you put it that way, does it?

Putting aside the manipulation of statistics – lies, damn lies and statistics, indeed! – the reality is that Arsenal will be underdogs going into this quarter-final. That is fair enough. But to write Arsenal off would be foolhardy. Twice already this season, the Londoners’ Premier League challenge has been prematurely dismissed (firstly after a humiliating home defeat to Chelsea before Christmas, then after back-to-back losses to Man U and Chelsea a few weeks ago), but each time the team has bounced back impressively to sustain an improbable – but far from impossible – tilt at the title.

Arsenal are quietly coming into form right now – or, at the very least, finding a way to win tight games by whatever means necessary (which works just as well for me) – and I get the impression that this team functions much better as an underdog than it does as a favourite. Barcelona, on the other hand, have recently shown signs of both fatigue and a slight dip in form, particularly away from Camp Nou.

Even allowing for my somewhat partisan view, there is certainly more than a glimmer of hope for Arsenal. Their chances of advancing to the semi-finals (where either Inter or CSKA Moscow will await) are perhaps only 35-40% – but that’s certainly better than Chelsea or Liverpool’s odds!

Whisper it quietly, I am not exactly unconfident about our prospects. With Fabregas in the team all things are possible, and Arsenal have developed a knack in recent seasons of turning over Europe’s big names (while simultaneously struggling against so-called ‘lesser’ teams): Juventus, Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, Inter at the San Siro, Roma at the Stadio Olimpico.

Yes, there are no easy games in Europe. But there are also no impossible ones.

As a footnote, I would like to congratulate Fulham, who last night overcame a 3-1 first-leg deficit – and then the concession of a second minute David Trezeguet goal – to defeat Juventus 5-4 on aggregate (4-1 on the night) and advance to the Europa League quarter-finals. It must surely have been one of the biggest nights in the club’s history. And it is testament to the managerial prowess of Roy Hodgson, who this time two years ago had just taken over a club who looked nailed-on certainties for relegation and has delivered nothing but positive progress ever since.

England’s next manager? Maybe, although there are several plausible arguments against his appointment whenever Fabio Capello decides to step down. But you would have a hard time convincing me that there is a better – or more likeable – English manager anywhere in the game right now.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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