Since I arrived in Sydney, early September 2012, Champions League coverage has been on the ESPN channels, which are available as part of the Foxtel sports package (Foxtel being the Australian equivalent of Sky for those unaware). I’ve therefore been able to watch every Champions League fixture since my arrival just over three years ago.
However, this season coverage has moved to BeIN Sports, a channel which is not included within the Foxtel sports package. So a decision had to be made; do I subscribe to BeIN Sports, or do I go without Champions League coverage? The decision was sadly an easy one – I would not be subscribing to BeIN Sports.
There were two reasons for this decision being an easy one. The first was cost. I cannot justify spending an additional $20 a month; my monthly Foxtel subscription fee is ridiculously high as it is. The second reason is a sad indictment of Arsenal’s Champions League record. I thought, “what’s the point?”.
18 years of Champions League football under Arsene Wenger and what do we have to show for it? One final, one semi-final and, asides from a few magical nights against some true European giants, not a lot else. Our defeats to Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiacos were laughably predictable.
Since we last made a quarter-final appearance, the list of clubs to have successfully made it that far includes: Inter Milan, AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid, Porto, Benfica, Monaco, Schalke, Marseille, Shakhtar Donetsk, Galatasaray, Malaga, APOEL Nicosia and Tottenham Hotspur. Pardon my French, but fuck me. If APOEL Nicosia wasn’t rubbing salt into the wounds then Tottenham Hotspur really is the epitome of kicking a man (very fucking hard) whilst he’s already down.
And here’s the thing. You simply cannot convince me that any of the above teams have had a significantly better team (or squad) than Arsenal whilst achieving their quarter-final appearances. Yes there are some big clubs in that list, with rich histories and some good players, such as the two Milan sides. But are they (or were they at the time of achieving the quarter-final) significantly better than us? And by that I mean would you put them into the Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich category? Certainly not. These are teams we should be more than capable of matching, yet we are not.
I love Arsene, and the many extraordinary things he has done for our great club, immensely. But how can you not question his European record? Even if you exclude the most challenging part of his reign (balancing the books as we transitioned from Highbury to the Emirates) it doesn’t make pretty reading; his two double winning sides and the Invincibles never made it beyond the last eight. To compound matters the second of those double winning sides lost to Valencia, denying them a semi-final place against Leeds United. Whilst the Invincibles suffered that painful second leg defeat at home to Chelsea, denying them a semi-final tie with Monaco and a final against Porto. It says a lot that many Arsenal fans still regard the Invincibles as our biggest near miss when it comes to the Champions League, despite the fact we made the final two years later.
Bizarrely the two times we have progressed beyond the quarter-finals came at more challenging times. The first, our final year at Highbury, a campaign in which we scrapped fourth place in the league on the final day, yet remarkably reached the Champions League final thanks to a record (which still exists to this day) of 10 clean sheets in a row, despite playing the majority of those games with a makeshift backline consisting of Eboue, Senderos, and Flamini. The second came during the infamous ‘Project Youth’ era, with eventual defeat in the semi-finals at the hands of United.
But ‘Project Youth’ is no longer in existence. We have a fantastic squad, with some incredible players. There is of course room for improvement, but even with current gaps in the squad we should be capable of beating Zagreb and Olympiacos, and we should certainly have enough in our locker to be matching the exploits of APOEL Nicosia! But we didn’t and we haven’t. So, after 18 years of European failure and a disastrous start to this season’s campaign there is little choice but to question Arsene when it comes to Europe (or in some people’s eyes domestically too).
Our players should be capable of making the last eight more often than not. Beyond the last eight then I admit we’d need a little bit of luck to accompany the squad at our disposal; a kind draw here or there, big clubs knocking each other out, and so forth. Draw permitting, Real, Barca, and Bayern will often take three of the four semi-final spots. But that still leaves a fourth spot up for grabs, and as Juventus proved last season both that fourth semi-final spot and then the final itself are possible if you play your cards right. But sadly we’re not even close.
Instead I’m left thinking “what’s the point?”. BeIN Sports also provide coverage of the League Cup, the Europa League, the Championship, Scottish football, German football, and Italian football, none of which provide a strong enough interest to lure me into subscribing and handing over $20 a month. It’s rather tragic that I’m now putting Arsenal’s Champions League exploits into the same bucket, a bucket I don’t see them coming out of until there’s a new manager at the helm.