Irksome pattern repeats for Arsenal
It’s not hard to guess what Arsène Wenger may have been feeling while watching the Uefa Champions League round of 16 draw on Monday: a sense of déjà vu.
His Arsenal side seems to have been caught in a time loop since the 2010-11 season: finishing in the top 4 of the Premier League after early promise, making it past a tricky Champions League group into the last 16 and then getting knocked out, either on the debatable away-goal rule or on aggregate. The knockout coming most likely after a stirring fightback which fades from memory as memes making a mockery of their luck start rolling out even before the final whistle.
But when they beat Basel 4-1 in the final group game and lowly Ludogorets drew against the mighty Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), Arsenal finished on top of their table for the first time in five seasons. This time, surely, there would be an easy draw. This time, surely, they would break past the time loop a la Matthew McConaughey in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and enter another dimension: an easy knockout draw.
It wasn’t to be. The miniature Champions League ball popped out Bayern Munich’s name and put it firmly in front of Arsenal—for the third time in seven seasons. Their round of 16 opponents since the wretched run of getting knocked out in this stage have been: Barcelona, Milan, Bayern, Bayern, Monaco, Barcelona and Bayern. The difference this time is that there is genuine hope Bayern will falter like they have a few times this season—and that Arsenal will find themselves in rampant and roaring form on the same night.
PSG will be hoping for this too. Barcelona have hardly looked their usual selves. They’ve throbbed like disco lights but haven’t quite dazzled with consistency, and are trailing Real Madrid by six points in La Liga.
PSG will hope to carry this form into the Champions League. After all, the Parisians were knocked out by the Catalans twice in the quarter-final stages: in 2012-13 and 2014-15. PSG’s workaholic manager Unai Emery has had an indifferent start to life in France, but the man is already in the history books for winning three Europa League titles—belief and records take a back seat, however, when you’re facing Barca.
Manchester City find themselves in a favourable position, and will relish a tie with AS Monaco. Pep Guardiola is facing criticism for being tactically stubborn, but Monaco are tricky at best against City’s array of stars.
Defending champions Real Madrid face Napoli, and while Gli Azzurri are a side that boasts of Marek Hamšík, Lorenzo Insigne and Kalidou Koulibaly, it’s hard to see them beating one which has Zinedine Zidane on the touchline, with world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo on the pitch. Add to the mix Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos and Luka Modrić and the difference is vast.
The fixture to watch is Sevilla vs Leicester City. The Spaniards have won five Europa League titles in 10 years and face a team which took the football world by storm when they won the Premier League last season. While they struggle domestically, teams in Europe haven’t been able to figure out The Foxes.
They finished top of their group, and apart from a 5-0 thumping in the final game, have shown the sort of form that helped them either eke out results or thunder past teams with their breakneck counter-attacking.
Sevilla are more organized in that regard, and just a point behind Barcelona in La Liga. However, just as so many teams have learnt in the past 12 months, Leicester are a force that cannot be predicted.
Porto and Juventus meet for the first time since 2002, and the Italian champions are favourites for this one, marshalled by the excellent Gianluigi Buffon. The Old Lady has conceded just two goals in the group stage and Porto will need something special to break the Italians’ defence.
One fixture which does promise goals is Benfica vs Dortmund. Benfica have conceded 10 goals in group games and Dortmund have scored 21, which is the most by any club in the first phase of the Champions League. Benfica will take heart from the fact that their German counterparts have let in 10 as well—and that even a free-scoring Dortmund sit in sixth place in the Bundesliga, despite slamming in the second-highest number of goals (32) in the competition.
Then there’s Atlético Madrid, who are the complete antithesis of free scoring. They topped their group by scoring just seven goals in six games, letting in just two. Diego Simeone has reached two finals in three years, and has a knack of getting the best out of his side in European competition. They face a side which has scored only one more than them (8), making this the battle of the misers.
The groups have been navigated and the draws are over. It’s time for the knockouts in the Champions League, and starting Valentine’s Day, we will see no love lost between old foes.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and news editor (sport) at ScoopWhoop.