With Champions League football back on the agenda, Arsenal’s squad will once again be tested in a match that could, in any other year, be drawn up as a knockout round tie, with Napoli being welcomed to the Emirates.
There’s an odd perception when it comes to the Champions League group stages. Strive all season to make the top four and then hope for an ‘easy’ path into the latter stages – at least that’s the view from some sections of support. A group consisting of Napoli, Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund, and even regulars Marseille, is one of the glamour groups of this year’s competition.
What can be said, however, is that there are supporters who may fear that qualification from the group in either first or second place may be a stretch. It’s not that Arsenal lack the quality to match the consistently impressive Dortmund or the dark horses from Naples, it’s the question of depth and whether sacrifices can and should be made when juggling European and domestic league fixtures.
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It was a concern that Arsene Wenger chose to play Per Mertesacker for 120 minutes in the League Cup away to West Brom, only then to go on and start him in the away tie at Swansea. Thomas Vermaelen may be an able backup to the first-choice centre-back pairing at Arsenal, but considering Napoli’s potent attack, most at Arsenal would be far more assured of a good result if the German stays in the defence for this particular tie.
And the thing is it’s only the start of October. Even Wenger expressed concern over the long-term fitness of his squad, though it’s not something that couldn’t be combated via the market. The Premier League, of course, should be the priority. It’s a logical step for a club of Arsenal’s stature to regain a foothold at the highest tier of football.
So there is a question. In the likely event that Arsenal do finish third in their Champions League group – and again that isn’t a knock to the club, but an awareness of the limitations of the squad – would the Europa League and a strong charge in the Premier League be considered an acceptable or even good balance for the second half of the season? Conversely, would a lack of Champions League football in the second half of the season be deemed acceptable?
The Europa League door has fortunately been pushed open a little further for audiences in this country, with last season’s Premier League top three competing in the competition over the past two seasons. It doesn’t represent a failure by any stretch, but rather an opportunity. The League Cup, for arguments sake, is a write-off, such is the squad and the nature of Arsenal’s opponents in the next round.
Arsenal are nowhere near to winning the Champions League, and in a traditional sense have no business being in the competition, along with many others. From one point of view, it makes little sense to ‘throw away’ European football for this season, though incidentally many who are involved in the Europa League group stages do exactly that. The reality, unfortunately is that Arsenal don’t have the means to maintain this strong start in the league while offering maximum input to the Champions League.
The end result to sacrificing, in a way, one major competition is that Arsenal could be very well placed come January to strengthen and further their cause for a strong finish in the Premier League. Couldn’t it be argued that, considering the inconsistency of other title challengers, the league title is more or less up for grabs, in that there is no clear winner?
Arsenal don’t have the squad of a Bayern Munich or even an Atletico Madrid, who can afford to successfully juggle two major competitions. Instead, the domestic form of the club indicates that the Premier League will bring the most success, in one form or another. Qualifying from the Champions League group stages would be a bonus, but a third place finish wouldn’t be as disastrous as may be initially thought.
Where should Arsenal’s priorities lie this season?
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