On Friday, December 17, UEFA will be announcing who plays whom in the knockout rounds of the Champion's League. Surprisingly, when it came to Group H, Shakhtar Donetsk finished on top, with their only defeat coming from their away game at the Emirates.
Arsenal, on the other hand, was cruising through the group stage until they were beaten by Donetsk and SC Braga—both road games. During the final day of the group stage, Donetsk defeated Braga while Arsenal gave their supporters the usual high blood pressure whenever they face weaker opponents until the Gunners played to their potential during the final 20 minutes.
Earlier today, UEFA announced the possible match ups for the first knockout round. For example, Olympique de Marseille has the opportunity to face one of seven different teams who finished first in their respective groups, but Arsenal can only face one of four teams that won their group—Bayern Munich, FC Barcelona, Real Madrid or FC Schalke 04. Arsenal will not have to worry about facing Chelsea, Manchester United or Tottenham Hotspur at this time because they all play in the same domestic league.
There now arises a question of whom supporters want to face in the first knockout round. Last season, Arsenal got as far as the quarterfinals before being steamrolled by Barcelona. By the time Arsenal reached the quarterfinals, many key players were already injured or got injured for the remainder of the season during both legs. Arsenal's lack of depth at the center back position and the simple fact that they ran out of gas were their primary downfalls. This year, if Arsenal expects to go far in the Champion's League, players like Robin van Persie, Cesc Fàbregas and Theo Walcott will have to improve on their reliability in crucial matches, something which has been problematic the last two years.
If one had to rank the four teams from least difficult to most difficult to face in the first knockout round, it would go Schalke 04, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and finally Barcelona. This is not to say that Schalke would be a walk in the park, nor that beating Barcelona will be impossible. Given the way Arsenal's season has gone so far, playing Schalke could be as difficult as playing Barcelona.
FC SCHALKE 04
This season, Schalke showed the soccer world they meant business by signing players such as Raúl and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in order to compete at the Champion's League stage while still being a top flight squad in the Bundesliga. In an interesting twist of fate, Schalke finished atop their group, but currently are struggling to stay above the relegation zone domestically. While the teams Schalke faced in the group stage are not world powerhouses, they were able to get the job done to advance. It is a shame that the Benfica team from last year is not around this year. On paper, Arsenal is deep enough in talent to beat Schalke any day of the week, but given Arsenal's complacent attitude against weaker teams, Schalke could sneak a victory past Arsenal if they are not careful. Relative to sides like Barcelona, Arsenal will not need to be at their absolute best, but they will need to be focused and play with a killer instinct in order to advance.
In the words of rapper Eminem, "Will the real Bayern Munich please stand up?" This year's version of the German powerhouse is marred with inconsistency. Perhaps it has something to do with the absence of the flying Dutchman, Arjen Robben. Or it may have something to do with Franck Ribéry's limited appearances this campaign, but this is not the same team that went to Madrid to face Inter Milan in the 2009-10 Champion's League Final. Needless to say, all it will take is a couple of good games and this squad will be back in form. Upon first glance, the average fan would say Bayern cruised through the group stage, but they had their share of struggles against Roma, CFR Cluj and Basel. So, should Arsenal face the current, inconsistent Bayern Munich, Arsenal will probably advance. If "Rob-béry" comes back and is fit enough during the home stretch, the Gunners will be in for quite a match up.
Before the recent "El Clásico", Real Madrid was probably the most in-form team in the world. By the time supporters at the pub drank their first pint, Barcelona quickly proved to the world why they have been the best team in the world the past four years. Outside of the 5-0 loss to Barca, Los Blancos are most likely the second most difficult team Arsenal could face in the first knockout round. Even without Káka, Real has looked very impressive this season. Knowing "The Special One," José Mourinho will come up with whatever scheme is necessary to advance to the next round. Like Barcelona, Arsenal has the advantage of playing team football, which is what crushed Real Madrid. If the Gunners can strike early, they will have a good chance to get by Madrid. But Wenger and company must make sure they do not give Madrid too much respect; otherwise, Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria will have a field day on the flanks.
In all honesty, who wants to face Barcelona in the first knockout round? The way they thrashed Real Madrid a few weeks ago has definitely reaffirmed their status as the top team in the world at the moment. In order for Arsenal to be able to get past Barcelona, not only will they need to play perfect football, but they will also need to have a fully fit and in-form Fàbregas and Thomas Vermaelen available. The current CB rotation will not be able to stop David Villa, Lionel Messi and Pedro. If Barcelona maintains their fitness over the next few months, it will be very difficult to outplay a team that has some of the world's best at all of their positions. Outside of major injuries or a meltdown, both of which seem highly unlikely, I do not think any team would want to face Barcelona in the first knockout round.
On any given day, Schalke may be as tough as Barcelona for the Gunners. What it will come down to for Arsenal is how healthy the squad is come Champion's League time and their frame of mind. If Arsenal goes into their first leg with the same attitude they had against West Brom or Newcastle, Schalke could eliminate Arsenal as easily as Barcelona would.
See you on December 17!