Forget the Premier League, Arsenal Must Aim for Champions League as Well
Arsenal have now only lost one match from their last 22 in all competitions and are justifiable Premier League contenders this season. But, far from Arsene Wenger's team just having domestic ambitions, the Gunners should also be aiming at the Champions League.
Arsene Wenger's team are off to their best Premier League start in five years and deservedly sit on top of the table. The Gunners have been just as impressive in the Champions League. If results go their way on October 22, Wenger's birthday, they could qualify for the knockout stage.
Who will win the Champions League?
The Frenchman's team lead UEFA Champions League Group F after the opening two games of the group stage. Arsenal's first game saw them travel to France to earn the win over Marseille in a tightly contested affair. Their second game saw Napoli and Rafael Benitez visit the Emirates Stadium.
The match was touted as the toughest game of Arsenal's season and was seen by many as the litmus test by which to judge their season's ambitions.
The Gunners simply swept Napoli aside. Their first-half performance was one to savor. Their second half, which was just as impressive, was one of discipline and determination.
It gave a reminder to Europe of just how good the Gunners can be when they put their minds to it.
Before the game, "Le Prof" said he felt his team were Champions League contenders this year. Many pundits and analysts would have scoffed at the veteran's boast.
However, after this performance against Napoli, their thinking was most definitely revised.
Speaking to Sky Sports, Wenger said:
You always think 'let's do it' every year, and one year it will go for you, so let's hope it will be this year.
If we get out of the group I would say we have a chance [to win the Champions League], but what we have to show is that we have the strength.
It is something I miss [the Champions League trophy] that I will try to fight very hard to fill my CV with.
After making a quality side like Napoli look less than ordinary, the Gunners might actually be a good outside bet for the trophy with big ears.
Next up are two matches against Borussia Dortmund, last season's beaten finalists, with the first at the Emirates Stadium. One of the quirks of this season's Champions League is that Arsenal have been handed two back-to-back home fixtures, and it has given them a great advantage to progress.
Their run of form has been so good this season (they have drawn two and won nine in their last 11 matches with a win rate of 82 percent) that they go into every game as heavy favorites.
Jurgen Klopp, Dortmund's inspirational manager, is suspended, as reported by the Metro, for an "irresponsible" rant at the fourth official. Nuri Sahin has been ruled out with injury according to UEFA for the trip to London. These two facts combined with Arsenal's recent form mean that if results go their way on October 22, they could practically qualify for the round of 16.
From there the Gunners only have to get past six matches and three rounds before they are in the final.
That's easier said than done, of course.
Arsenal are priced at 16-1 outsiders to win the Champions League next May on Oddschecker. They are joint sixth favorites alongside Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund. However, given the Red Devils' recent form and the fact that the Gunners could put Dortmund's campaign to the sword on October 22, those odds might be slightly misleading.
Munich are the competition's obvious favorites and decimated Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. They gave a performance of power and composure with no little skill to brush City completely aside. Pep Guardiola's team will be the team to beat and are best priced at 3-1.
Of the named teams, none will bring a great deal of fear to Arsenal's team—or their fans.
Obviously there are talents that will have to be catered for if the Gunners come across them. After all, as good as the Premier League is, the Gunners do not face players like Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic every week. They did, however, face Gareth Bale on a few occasions over the last couple of years and came out the better side more often than not.
Team work and work ethic will be important if Arsenal are to progress towards their first final appearance since 2006—their only Champions League final appearance. After the Gunners' impressive performance against Napoli, Mathieu Flamini spoke to the official club website of wanting to prove the club's doubters wrong.
Many people were talking outside of the Club, but from the inside we knew we had a lot of qualities. We had a difficult period but the manager never changed his philosophy and believed very strongly in this team. I’m really happy he has proved what he did was the right thing.
We are trusting each other. This is the result of a lot of work. Trust is very important. The main thing is to have quality in the team but after that you need to find team spirit.
When you start helping each other, fighting for each other on the pitch, this helps you to win games. Especially during a difficult period, it helps you to stay focused, be a unit, and go from a bad period to a good period.
Team spirit is difficult to find, and difficult to keep, so we have to work very hard on that. What makes the difference is the solidarity in the team. Technique, once you have it, you have it. But solidarity, you have to work on it.
There is little doubt that in the early stages of the Champions League this term, only two teams have shown the solidity and solidarity that Flamini spoke of—Arsenal and Bayern Munich.
As Flamini said, "Technique, once you have it, you have it. But solidarity, you have to work on it." The French international is right. This aspect of team play is one of the most misunderstood and most important. A cohesive team will always beat a disjointed and more talented team.
The evidence before all our eyes, from Aaron Ramsey's rise in importance to how Mesut Ozil has improved the team to the fans backing Wenger, shows an Arsenal team on the road to becoming a tightly knit and cohesive team.
The main reason for the jump in Arsenal's aspirations has been the signing of Ozil. Olivier Giroud was gushing in his recent praise for the German international. He told the official club website:
It is really simple to find him on the pitch and we have a really good understanding on the pitch.
He always does the right thing in the right moment. He has incredible technique
I think he was the man we needed to really improve ourselves.
Ozil's capture has elevated the Gunners to genuine Premier League title challengers. His form has coincided with their phenomenal start to their Champions League campaign.
If that run can continue, there is every reason to believe that Arsenal can remain serious contenders in every competition.
You can follow me on Twitter @WillieGannon.
And listen to me on the Hold the Back Page podcast.
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