Thoughts of an Arsenal Fan: The Europa Question

The North London Derby, the biggest chance for bragging rights for the season for either Arsenal or Tottenham, it’s the one time when everything else is put aside for 90 minutes. Shots are fired before, during and after, past history, form and team qualities are analysed and used to boost the argument for who will win. In recent seasons it has become a more exciting watch for all. Tottenham have undoubtedly improved over the past few seasons and Arsenal’s dominance of the fixture has begun to diminish. The victory nether the less brings elation to the winning faction and in recent seasons has begun to shape the context of the league positioning for both. With our 1-0 defeat to Spurs last Saturday I think now it has most definitely pushed Arsenal outside of the race for the top four – Tottenham’s newest bragging right in the ongoing North London Saga.

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Harry Kane and Spurs celebrating a key goal and win for Tottenham

As an Arsenal fan last season was hard to take, it was the first time since the 1994-5 season that Tottenham had Finished above us in the league, as close as they had come in seasons passed (2005-6, 2009-10, 2011-12, 2012-13, 2015-16) we have had to endure years of built up grief. worryingly it doesn’t look as if last season will be a one-off occasion and more grief is going to come. The biggest problem for Arsenal to have from this is that we now sit 7 points behind Tottenham (45 – 52) in the league and 8 off Chelsea who are in fourth (53). Tottenham might have sealed our fate to another year outside the Champions league places in as early as February – Something Arsenal cannot afford to do for another season, for the sake of the future of the club.

Well that is qualification through our league campaign anyway. The Europa League may be our one route to what we desperately need to go forward. Since 2015 the winners of Europe’s second competition have had the grand prize of champions league football for the following season. Initially it was a way of creating a greater interest from teams in the competition to take it seriously. From last season it hasn’t failed to do so (from an English perspective), Manchester United made full use of the win over Ajax to earn a place for this season’s Champions League – where Manchester United had finished sixth in the league and well out of the running, this has now allowed them to invest and attract the players to compete for dominance in the league and Europe going forward. Arsenal need to take note of this.

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Manchester United Celebrating last season’s Europa League win over Ajax

Coincidently, I was recently asked the question “Do Arsenal fans want to win the Europa League?” Initially perplexed as to why I was being asked this I answered YES! It is becoming ever more clear that our position of power in the league is fading season after season, Liverpool and Tottenham have strengthened in recent seasons to add competition to the top four places and with too much uncertainty over the Wenger issue and players leaving we have faded out of the league running. The Europa League is the one way we can guarantee Champions league football. I cannot write it enough – we need champions league football if we want to compete with the best European clubs and stand a chance of attracting the best talent in and keeping our best talent in the club. Now that we look from the outside-in, Champions league means so much more than it has ever before for Arsenal, if we don’t get in we run a dangerous risk of fading as a European team.

The question however is a valid one, to this point Wenger has fielded his ‘cup team’ for group stage fixtures. By this he has decided that for the harmony of the squad, to ensure our oversized team gets game time and bleeding the youngsters in that European fixtures have become second fiddle. This is no problem every team does it and the players have more than delivered, we quite comfortably negotiated our way through to the knockout phases of the competition and after this week’s away trip to Ostersunds, Sweden we look to be moving well into the last 16. The fixtures have really been less than attractive – ticket prices have been dirt cheap for once to try to encourage better numbers to Thursday night games but it also sends a general statement out in general – that until this point have we really been that bothered about winning the Europa League? From a fan point it is increasingly obvious that we should put more, if not all our focus into the competition. The players and staff will want to win all competitions they enter in, but maybe now they may approach these fixtures as a priority too in terms of team selection. Maybe our biggest problem in recent seasons is the fact we think that we are better than the Europa league, that it is below us. I cannot really remember a time that we had been in this competition – maybe the 2000 final we lost to Galatasaray – after we had dropped out from the champions league group stages, we always guaranteed we got out of the group stage, to be then knocked out early by a European giant (Barcelona or Bayern Munich mostly). It is not a competition or a competitive level we are used to playing in. So is it realistic that we can win it?

You have to sceptical being an Arsenal fan, it just comes with our experience of recent years. Yes this is a serious competition that we can win absolutely no question, I would happily back us to win especially with the added motivation that Champions League Qualification hangs in the balance. You just worry though that we will make a mistake somewhere. Maybe it will come from squad selection, maybe it will come from our ‘better than this’ mentality or maybe that we have some serious competition ahead in the knock out stages. Take into consideration that Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund lurk in the Competition, Atletico with a 4-1 away lead against FC Copenhagen and Dortmund also narrowly ahead with tight 3-2 lead and a tough away trip to Atalanta. These two teams both have serious and recent European pedigree in this competition and the champions league – both finalists in this decade. Then there are the historic heavy weights of AC Milan, a team poor on form in the league perhaps also looking at the Europa league as their way back into the champions league and with newly backed ownership a rise back to power and Dominance both in Europe and Italy could well lay ahead if they were to win this season. With Italy also comes leaders Napoli who have to overturn a 3-1 home defeat to RB Leipzig, the new and ambitious German team looking to continue their rise to power. Lazio, Marsailles, Lyon, Villareal, Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad, Sporting Lisbon, Brendan Rodgers Celtic and Claudio Ranieri’s Nice all are in this competition and all are European names who could all prove to be formidable stumbling blocks for each other and Arsenal this season. Perhaps the Europa league will not be the stroll some Arsenal fans and pundits think it may be.

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Atletico Madrid in action, one of many a threat to Arsenal’s Europa ambitions

Perhaps with this competition  Arsenal fans should begin to take the Europa League more seriously.

Of  course some of these teams will fallout in this round, Napoli have to win by three goals away from home, Villareal are also trailing to Lyon by the same score line and there will no doubt be some shocks to come. Who we draw and who we could face in each round, with a bit of luck may give us a straightforward route to the final – alternatively we could play AC Milan, Atletico, Dortmund and Leipzig in a run of Europa death. Either way it could be an exciting affair and for once a chance for Arsenal to progress in Europe. With Ozil, Mkhitaryan, Bellerin, Mustafi and Monreal all getting the nod for the Ostersunds game it looks as if Wenger is going to ensure this route will go all the way, I cannot see Arsenal giving up their league pursuit – it is not unusual for Arsenal to go on a very run late into the season, lets hope these potential scenarios do not create potential selection issues that could affect our chance to win a piece of vital silverware perhaps the most important piece of silverware in the past four seasons and for the future of this great club.

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Hector Bellerin, Henrik Mkhitayran, and Nacho Monreal amonsgt other players selected for the Ostersunds game.

I know many an Arsenal fan (myself included) that are losing touch with Arsenal as a great club. By great I mean a team that genuinely looks like it can compete. February 2016 was the last time I felt we could compete to be top (beating Leicester 2-1 in the final minutes of the game to put us top of the table) but by March we were back to the new normality – fighting for Champions league qualification. For Arsenal fans like myself it is to be great again, to be able to win the big ones and not to have to endure the grief and lout coming from an over cocky North London neighbour. We know of great times and we want great again!

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