Welcome back Blogees. We get our Champions League campaign underway at the Stadion Maksimir in Zagreb tonight, and with a bit of luck, we’ll begin a sequence of four consecutive away games with a win.
First, some stats: No team has won more Champions League games without winning the trophy than we have (76), and no currently active manager has taken charge of more games in the competition than our very own Arsene Wenger (168).
We’ve won our last three away games in the Champions League and our opponents this evening, Dinamo Zagreb, have failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their last eight home games in the competition. The omens are good.
That said, when you make changes to a winning team, as we will tonight, there is always an increased possibility of the side not functioning at it’s best, so the players who come in, will need to be at their best to ensure we don’t look disjointed and play like a pack of complete strangers.
It’s happened before, although with the overall quality of our squad vastly improved from seasons past, it’s less of a worry these days. For instance, Hector Bellerin has not made the trip and we can call upon an experienced French international like Mathieu Debuchy to cover for him.
That’s depth of quality, unlike bringing in Justin Hoyte for Bacary Sagna for example. And Arsene discussed just this topic at his pre-match press conference last night, when he was asked if he’d make changes to his team with specifically the Premier League game at Chelsea on Saturday in mind:
It is more the global programme we have to absorb in the next three weeks, rather than one (Chelsea) game. I knew since I [found out] our schedule that I have a squad of 20 players, all experienced and every decision I make is very difficult. It is quite easy to change two or three players, [more] than it was in years before because they are all at a very good level. I know the same team cannot play every single game over the next three weeks. I try to keep the balance right and give a little breather to players who need it.
The boss also discussed his side’s desire to win the competition for the first-time in the club’s history, reflected ruefully on last season’s knock-out stage elimination at the hands of Monaco and pointed out that the road to May’s final in Milan is a long one, requiring a lot of hard work along the way. He said:
If we missed one game last year, then it was our home game with Monaco. We were not patient enough and we wanted to make the difference in the first game. We know we have some way to put that right, that is a regret of the season last year. We know as well that we can show that we have learnt from that. This drive [to win the competition] is immense. It has never been done at Arsenal and we were very, very, very, close. On the other hand, I have been long enough in the job to know you have to be realistic and know that you have to put hard work in.
After both Manchester clubs lost their opening group stage games, English teams have been written off before the competition has even really begun, but I don’t agree to be honest. The likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and last year’s beaten finalists Juventus, are undoubtedly top quality sides, but the only team from that quartet I’d really rather avoid on any run to the San Siro is Barca. Besides them though, I would fancy our chances against any side in Europe if we’re fully fit and on form.
After coming so, so close in Paris in 2006, getting to our second-ever Champions League Final ten years on would be more exciting than winning the Premier League for me. I appreciate many younger fans will not have savoured our most recent title wins in 1998, 2002 and 2004 and that’s probably why I’d be in a minority among many supporters in preferring continental success over domestic, but it’s about time we were crowned champions of Europe and a win tonight would obviously be a great way to kick-start our challenge this season.