In recent years, when it comes to the Champions League knockout stages, it’s seemed you could guarantee two things. One: Arsenal would qualify for it. Two: Arsenal get knocked out. In fact, it’s not since the 2009/10 season that Arsenal have progressed beyond the round of 16, when they were eliminated from the tournament by Barcelona at the quarter final stage. Each of the seasons from then on, Arsenal went out of the competition in that round of 16 and likely to do so again this year, following the 2-0 home defeat to familiar foes, Barcelona, this past Tuesday.
What has become a popular myth though is that Champions League elimination has coincided with the wheels coming off their season in February and March. The suggestion being that going out of the Champions League has been the catalyst for a capitulation in the Premier League. In actual fact, over the past 5 years it is only the 2013/14 season, when Champions League elimination at the hands of Bayern Munich also saw a poor run of Premier League form in February and March to effectively end their title challenge.
Perhaps surprisingly, considering the popular misconception, Arsenal’s Premier League form through February and March has been good for three of the previous four seasons. In each of those season (2011/12, 2012/13 and 2014/15), it was a poor start to their league campaign that was predominantly responsible for preventing any hope of a title challenge. With the Gunners currently in a good position in the Premier League title race, it’s imperative that myths are not perpetuated. Their trip away to the Camp Nou in the second leg of the Champions League is by no means mission impossible, but even the most ardent Gooner will accept it will be an incredibly difficult deficit to overturn against such a prolific side. It is only fair to point out that Arsene Wenger’s team inhibited Barcelona quite well for 70 minutes at The Emirates and spurned chances to score. The conundrum for the second leg will be whether to go for it, in an attempt to reverse the two goal Barcelona lead, thus potentially leaving themselves open to counter attacks from the devastating attack of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar or approach the game cautiously and hope to counter Barcelona. Whatever the outcome, a strong or even solid performance could go a long way to maintaining form at a crucial point of the season.
Sunday’s match against Manchester United is arguably more important than the upcoming trip to Catalonia. United will be buoyed from scoring five goals at home this past Thursday night against Danish minnows Midtjylland to progress in the Europa League, but Arsenal are an entirely different proposition and the extensive injury list Louis Van Gaal currently has to contend with will not help matters. It does, however, present Arsenal with an opportunity to out-gun the Red Devils; if you’ll pardon the pun.
The crux of the matter here for Arsenal though, is they cannot afford to spurn the opportunities presented to them if they want to claim their first Premier League crown in 12 years. Although Arsenal v Manchester United matches do not hold the same vigour and significance as they did a decade ago, it is a match that neither side can afford to lose. The consequence of defeat for either side would inflict crucial damage of their respective aspirations: Arsenal their title challenge and United their hopes of a top four finish. Whilst the pressure will be on both sides, the Gunners will be favourites heading into the Old Trafford clash and must handle that expectation appropriately.
Following Sunday’s big clash, Arsenal play host to Swansea midweek and are then away to North London rivals and fellow title challengers Tottenham, so the importance of a win cannot be underestimated. Wenger will then take his team to Humberside for an FA Cup replay against Hull and just a few days after the Champions League second leg, have an away trip to Everton awaiting them.
Those fixtures and the scheduling of them make the next four weeks the most crucial so far in what could be a historic season for Arsenal. It all starts on Sunday and Arsene Wenger cannot allow events in the Champions League to have any adverse effect if their title challenge is to continue and the myths are to be kept at bay.