The seemingly impossible task is almost complete. Arsenal, although very much in a mess of their own making, have done well to regain some control in Group F of this year’s Champions League.
After two games and two defeats they sat bottom with zero points from a possible six. To put that into perspective, in the history of the Champions League, 110 teams have lost their opening two games; only nine have made it through to the next round. But they now sit third in the table, three points behind Greek champions Olympiacos, who they travel to play in their final group game.
On Tuesday night Arsene Wenger’s team desperately needed a win against Dynamo Zagreb – a side so poor it continues to baffle that Arsenal were beaten by them back in September – and they delivered. It ended up being a comfortable night at the Emirates, and a 3-0 win felt at times so routine you could have been watching a pre-season friendly.
Arsenal’s Croatian opponents set up, as expected, not to concede, but were behind after half an hour and never looked like scoring. After Mezut Ozil opened the scoring with a close range header, Chilean Alexis Sanchez scored two more from sweeping Arsenal moves leaving the Gunners in with a shout of qualification to the next round.
The result, combined with Bayern Munich’s almost inevitable 4-0 thumping of Olympiacos, means that Arsenal must travel to Greece for the final group game and secure a win by two clear goals to go through. Not an easy task, but not an especially difficult one either. The Greek champions have lost only one game at home in all competitions this season, to Bayern Munich, and Arsenal will need to conjure a performance similar to the German’s 0-3 win to make it to the next round – something which, on current form, they are infinitely capable of.
Arsenal’s now annual Champions League meltdown usually comes in the round of 16, where they have been knocked out for five years running against the likes Monaco, AC Milan and, more understandably, Bayern Munich. In theory, they’ve got a couple of bad performances out of their system already this season after two shock defeats in Zagreb and at home to Olympiacos. Defensive frailties and the occasional tactical naivety aside, this Arsenal side has the talent to go far in this season’s Champions League, providing they can rally for the final group game in Greece.
Whether or not Arsene’s men make it through, questions will continue to be asked about the manager’s methods in Europe. From the decision to play David Ospina over Petr Cech in the must win game against Zagreb, to the naive capitulation away to Bayern, obvious flaws in this team threaten to undermine the brilliant individuals which make it up. Qualification to the next round will likely bring a tie against one of the continent’s strongest teams, but Arsenal fans will hope that this is the year everything finally comes together.