Arsenal: Arteta's Red Was Harsh But Second-Place CL Finish Is Just A Speed Bump
There’s a snatch of accepted wisdom that floats around the amateur football analysis community (also known as Twitter) that in knockout tournaments it doesn’t matter if you draw a good team because if you have ambitions of winning you’ll have to play them anyway. Having failed to see off the challenges of Napoli and Dortmund over 2 fixtures apiece, leaving them in the position of staring down the barrel of a revolver holding Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich rather than Olympiakos, Zenit St Petersburg and Leverkusen.
When you’re in a smoky basement surrounded by Korean gangsters, a fog of cigar smoke and with a table with two revolvers on it, it’s probably a good idea to choose the one with less technically proficient, world-class bullets in. You might also suggest that it’s better for Russian roulette playing writers to pick the gun containing less contrived analogies but in this case, Arsenal fans are getting the worst of both worlds.
A win and a loss apiece against Napoli and Dortmund along with a pair of victories over Marseille aren’t bad results. You might have hoped for a draw against Napoli or Dortmund in the second match but otherwise results went about as expected. Arsenal find themselves in second place on the basis of goals scored rather than through any serious points deficit, and it was as close to a group of death as things came this year; a group of grievous bodily harm, maybe. Mikel Arteta’s red card might look relatively harsh considering Napoli’s studied decimation of Arsenal in the first half that largely passed without censure, but the Italians had entered the second half with a vengeance even before the dismissal.
So, through no significant underperformance, Arsenal find themselves finishing in second place, and in a few weeks time will probably find themselves staring down a smoking barrel with a Barca bullet embedded between their eyes. While it’s generally true that you can’t win the Champion’s League without beating a good team (though Porto in 2004 had a pretty good stab at it), that doesn’t mean it’s in any team’s interest to meet a big team early on. Your chances are plainly increased with every big team you avoid. So it is for Arsenal. The loss, relatively unexpected as it might have been, has put them in the laser-sights of Europe’s best teams, and as far as victory prospects go that can’t really be seen as anything but a significant speed-bump.
There’s a temptation to view all of this in the shadow of what has thus far been a successful Premier League campaign. An early Champion’s League exit would be immediately forgotten on the back of a league victory. It’s significant that this result lies directly before two matches against Manchester City and Chelsea. Avoid losses at worst, and maybe pick up 4 or 6 points at best, and all sense of doom at a tricky knockout-round opponent is replaced with a jaunty confidence. Win or loss, an extension of the lead in the league against direct rivals will always be more important than Champion’s League progression.
On the other hand, bad results against Chelsea and Manchester City which yank league prospects back by the throat will look a lot worse in the light of rapidly diminishing Champions League hopes. Gloomy perhaps, but Arsenal may find their prospects massively damaged over a couple of weeks, reduced to clawing back the top spot in the league, hoping for unlikely victories in Europe and what will become a crucial FA cup tie against Spurs. Results in football are always measured by context, and as far as Arsenal’s important clutch of early-December matches go, they’ve got off to an inauspicious start.