Saturday, 17 September 2011

Magic 14?

No, this post isn’t a hagiography of our very own Theo Walcott. Despite his blistering pace and awesome ability to play inch-perfect, defence-splitting passes once in every, er, twenty or so attempts.

Instead, it’s a look back at the Gunners’ Champions League record to date. With a decent start to this season’s campaign, the fourteenth consecutive season in which Arsenal have played Champions League football, it seems an apposite time to review the team’s record in the competition. After all, much has been made of Arsène’s mantra that consistency is key: ‘The most difficult is consistency at the top, and the proof of that is that only two clubs have been able to finish in the top four for each of the last 12 years, us and Manchester United.’ Of course, for Arsène and the board a top four finish = Champions League qualification = £££, a considerable financial reward that is so conspicuously absent from, say, a Carling Cup or an FA Cup trophy. And that's where the priorities clearly lie, rightly or wrongly. Anyway, here’s a season-by-season breakdown of the Gunners’ European adventures since 1998. The initial placing in brackets represents Arsenal’s final finish in the preceding Premier League season, followed by their result in the qualifying round (opponents and aggregate score), group stage placing and points tally, and finally the stage of the competition reached before elimination.

Season 14: 2011/12 (4th) Qualifying round: 3-1 agg. v Udinese.
Season 13: 2010/11 (3rd) Group runners-up (12 pts), Round of 16 (3-4 agg., Barcelona)
Season 12: 2009/10 (4th) Qualifying round: 5-1 agg. v Celtic, Group winners (13pts), Quarter-Finals (3-6 agg., Barcelona)
Season 11: 2008/09 (3rd) Qualifying round: 6-0 agg. v Twente, Group runners-up (11pts), Semi-Finals (1-4 agg., Manchester United)
Season 10: 2007/08 (4th) Qualifying round: 5-0 agg. v Sparta Prague, Group runners-up (13pts), Quarter-Finals (3-5 agg., Liverpool)
Season 9: 2006/07 (4th) Qualifying round: 5-1 agg. v Dinamo Zagreb, Group winners (11pts), Round of 16 (1-2 agg., PSV Eindhoven)
Season 8: 2005/06 (2nd), Group winners (16pts), Final (1-2, Barcelona)
Season 7: 2004/05 (1st), Group winners (10pts), Round of 16 (2-3 agg., Bayern Munich)
Season 6: 2003/04 (2nd), Group winners (10pts), Quarter-Finals (2-3 agg., Chelsea)
Season 5: 2002/03 (1st), Group winners (10pts), Second group stage, 3rd
Season 4: 2001/02 (2nd), Group runners-up (9pts), Second group stage, 3rd
Season 3: 2000/01 (2nd), Group winners (13pts), Quarter-Finals (2-2 agg., Valencia*)
Season 2: 1999/00 (2nd), First group stage, 3rd (8pts)
Season 1: 1998/99 (1st), First group stage, 3rd (8pts)

* Valencia through on away goals

Of course, the statistics above don’t do justice to the team’s travails in that period. Love it or loathe it, the Champions League has played an important part in the Gunners’ recent history. It hasn’t unfortunately, led to any silverware, and there is an argument that it has actually cost us the chance of domestic trophy success, but equally it has given fans some great European nights. Occasions, indeed, that rank up there with – alright, surpassing – the Cup Winners’ Cup win over Parma back in 1994. Ultimately, those fourteen seasons have created memories both good and bad, with some painful defeats but also some memorable wins. As for what it might tell us about this season’s prospective campaign, well, although 3-1 on aggregate against Udinese looks comfortable on paper (and it certainly didn’t feel that way during the nervy win at the Emirates) it pales into insignificance against the maulings of Celtic (sorry Bhoys), Twente, Sparta Prague and Dinamo Zagreb. However, even without Alexis Sanchez, Udinese now are probably better than any of these sides were when we played them in 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006 respectively. Of course, in the first eight seasons of participation we didn’t have a play-off to get through at all…

Also worth noting is that, to date, 10 points or more (indeed 9 points in 2001/02) has always guaranteed progression from the group stages. This is an achievable target in a group consisting of Borussia Dortmund, Marseille and Olympiacos, particularly with an away point on the board already after arguably the toughest match of the six out of the way. Anything else? Well, it would be nice to avoid Barcelona for as long as possible – they’ve got an annoying habit of putting us out. Although, if last season’s tie against Barça was anything to go by, playing Pep Guardiola’s men does seem to bring out the best in the Gunners.

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