It was fourteen years ago that Arsenal lost a penalty shootout 4-1 to Galatasaray. On that night in Copenhagen, the Turkish team put on a brave defense and held the presumptive favorites to a 0-0 draw over 120 minutes. This was an Arsenal team whose stars should have shone through the blanket of night and yet they were all too easily covered over with a thin mist.
Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Tony Adams, Marc Overmars, and Emannuel Petit are all legends now. Even Seaman and Keown along with Dixon, Silvinho, and Ray Parlor are all household names (especially if your household is in North London or Tacoma, Washington). And yet those legends couldn’t overcome a 10 man Galatasaray team whose main star was a 35 year old named Gheorghe Hagi. And their main star, I might add, was sent off for a petulant punch on Tony Adams.
And if it seems like a lifetime ago that Arsenal lost that match, it’s because in the ephemeral life of Football, fourteen years has turned out to be at least three generations. There was the Invincibles generation which started to gel the year after that defeat. That was followed by Generation Cesc™ and the latest generation, which is probably best known by our sponsors, The Emirates Generation.
This Emirates Generation was the apple of Wenger’s eye 14 years ago. The stadium project was just starting to take shape, Arsenal had just built the state of the art training ground, and Wenger’s vision was that Arsenal with a 60,000 seat arena would be able to compete with Real Madrid for players like Zidane¹.
But a simple look around at the competition and you can see that Arsenal, despite the heavy investment in the new stadium, in the new training ground, and in hundreds of millions of dollars on new players like Alexis, Özil, Debuchy, Welbeck, and Chambers are still generations behind teams like PSG, Chelsea, Man City, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich.
And on the eve of his 18th anniversary at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger has admitted Arsenal have almost no chance of winning the Champions League (The Times, license required):
In the evolution of the Champions League, maybe it was a bit more open 15 years ago than it is today. The concentration of the big players in a small number of clubs is much more than it was before. It’s much more predictable today, the outcome of the Champions League, than it was ten years ago.
In a strange twist of irony part of that predictability is Arsenal and Arsène Wenger himself. In his 18 years at the club, Arsène has gotten Arsenal into the Champions League a record 17 consecutive times. And since losing that UEFA Cup final to Galatasaray he’s gotten Arsenal into the knockout phases all 14 times.
But in that record run of European appearances, Arsenal have only made the final once and in the last four years haven’t been able to get past the round of 16. If the Champions League has become predictable, Arsenal have become one of the most predictable fixtures in it.
The problem from a fans perspective is that while it is undeniably wonderful to have a European night out it’s also undeniably soul grating that these nights out are so ephemeral. Like the shadfly, they appear every year in droves, yet die off quickly, their lives lasting mere minutes — long enough to breed and ensure the return next season.
Arsenal haven’t had a sustained run in Europe for far too long and our matches in this, the pinnacle of world football, have been far removed from what we would come to expect. Arsenal don’t play beautiful football in Europe, especially against the best teams. In the last 5 years Arsenal have been dismantled by Barcelona, Bayern, and AC Milan. The Gunners have managed to come close to squeaking past these teams on the return leg four times but it’s always been a case of too little too late.
But perhaps I can be accused of looking too far ahead and spoiling tomorrow’s milk. Today’s match, against Galatasaray, is the kind of game that Wenger specializes in and you could almost hear it in his voice, the voice of experience, as he spoke about the importance of winning these home games.
We are maybe more under pressure to win than if we had won the first. In the group stage you need a minimum of 10 points so the home games are vital. Basically the target is always the same in the Champions League – you need to win your home games and you need one good result away from home. We had a disappointing result in Dortmund and the potential is there for us, we don’t lose a lot but we want to find the winning edge together and we have that opportunity against Galatasaray.
There’s one thing for sure: in Wenger’s 18 years at Arsenal, the Champions League has slowly become more and more predictable. And despite losing the bulk of the starting lineup, I have no doubt Arsène knows how to get Arsenal into the next phase.
¹Calling Time on Wenger (Amy Lawrence, 13 August 2000 The Observer)