Arsenal: Why Champions League Triumph Is Not a Fairytale
Chelsea, despite not having the best team in the 2011-12 Champions League, claimed the trophy that had eluded owner Roman Abramovich for so long.
At no point during the West London's side run to the final against Bayern Munich did they look like potential champions. In the group stage they took three wins out of six, losing to Bayer Leverkusen, and tying Valencia and Belgian side Genk.
The Blues then lost their opening Round of 16 match against Napoli 3-1, before rallying in extra time during the return leg at Stamford Bridge to sputter into the quarterfinals against Portuguese side Benfica. Chelsea won the first leg in Lisbon 1-0, and despite a late comeback by Benfica in the second leg, advanced to the semifinals against favorites Barcelona.
The Spaniards came to West London and predictably dominated the match, securing 72% of possession, 25 shots (15 on target) and eight corners. Yet despite being the superior team, Chelsea secured a 1-0 win thanks to a 45' Didier Drogba header, one of only two shots the home side registered during the entire match.
In the second leg at the Camp Nou, Chelsea were again dominated by a rampant Catalan squad. Playing at home, the Spanish powerhouse completed 660 of 776 attempted passes for a success rate of 85%, while Chelsea could only muster 117 successful passes en route to a 46% pass rate.
Chelsea left the pitch with a 2-2 draw and a berth in the final against German giants Bayern Munich. Fernando Torres' words earlier in the week, that "Barcelona are a step ahead of all other clubs," and that "the best team doesn't always win," were prophetic.
In the Allianz Arena—Bayern's own stadium—the English side pulled off a coup of frankly astonishing proportions. The Londoners were roundly outplayed through 120 minutes. The statistics speak volumes: Bayern held 55% of possession, took 34 shots (of which 21 found the target) and claimed 11 corners, while Chelsea mustered only six shots on target and had a single corner to its name.
After going behind in the 83' to a Thomas Mueller header, Didier Drogba once again bailed out the side with an 88' equalizer. Goalkeeper Petr Cech was forced to Arjen Robben's spot kick in extra time to perpetuate the madness, and saved an additional two more in the penalty shoot-out in order to secure the trophy.
The opening question, one of many, regarding this run of events should probably be: how did Napoli contrive to give up a two-goal lead in the opening knockout tie? The answer is sort of irrelevant; Chelsea won the Champions League, and in a few years time folks will only remember the achievement itself, not the path taken to arrive there. They will also gloss over the fact that the same squad ended its league efforts in sixth place—champions, indeed.
This cynicism is not intended as a bitter dig against Arsenal's better-funded and better-performing city rivals. Rather, it's to illustrate that Champions League glory does not always fall to the team that probably deserves it, only the team that keeps winning.
In that sense, there is a possibility that this year's Arsenal squad could emerge from this season as champions of Europe. The team is guaranteed passage to the knockout stage, though the squad will not know until their final group stage match next week if they will advance as winners or runners-up.
Yet there are several potential future opponents that look quite beatable. Despite hemorrhaging two goals to tie current group leaders Schalke 04 earlier in November, Arsenal at their best could well dominate the side currently sitting in third position in the Bundesliga.
Running down the rest of the list are a depleted AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Porto and Ukrainians Shakhtar Donetsk, all of which are sides that Arsenal has defeated since 2010. Adding Benfica, Celtic, CFR Cluj, Galatasaray, Malaga, Paris Saint-Germain and Valencia to the mix, there may well be a fair number of kind draws come the knockout stage.
This is not to trivialize the potential threat of many of the teams remaining in the competition, but it is meant to illustrate the quality squads that will likely be eliminated, such as Ajax, Braga, Chelsea, Manchester City, Montpellier, and Zenit St. Petersburg.
With the joint third-best defense in the Premier League, Arsenal's back line does not look like the perpetual defensive liability that it has been in the recent past. They're also sharing the scoring load among several players, and have the joint fifth-best scoring offense in the league.
Olivier Giroud is blossoming into a proper frontman for the Gunners, with seven goals and six assists to his name in his first 19 starts for the club. Midfielders Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere are beginning to gel together, even as Abou Diaby and Tomas Rosicky work back towards full fitness.
No, this is not the best Arsenal squad since the Gunners' last run to the Champions League final in 2006. Then again, Chelsea's team sheets against Barcelona and Bayern Munich probably did not engender the same respect as those of the Jose Mourinho era, when Michael Ballack and Arjen Robben were more frequently found on the bench than the field.
Rather, it looks to be a set of circumstances that may well fall in Arsenal's favor. If Arsene Wenger chooses to pick up a striker in the January transfer window, as has been suggested in the past week, the Gunners could be well poised to make a run deep in to the Champions League.
Next week's final group stage match against Olympiacos and the December 20 draw for the knockout stage may fall in Arsenal's favor, or they may not. But remember, the best team does not always win. For Arsenal fans, following Chelsea's lead may just earn them the club's most elusive trophy.
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