After two defeats in their opening two games of their Champions League campaign, Arsenal are facing the prospect of being eliminated at the group stage for the first time in 18 years.
The Gunners currently sit bottom of Group F behind Dinamo Zagreb, Olympiacos and Bayern Munich. With a double-header against Pep Guardiola’s men to come, even the most optimistic of Arsenal fans would have to admit that finishing in the top two currently feels like a stretch. To date, only seven out of 83 teams have reached the next round having lost their first two matches.
For some Gunners supporters, ending up bottom of the group would be preferable to a third-place finish. That would mean being parachuted into the much-maligned Europa League: a competition Arsenal pride themselves on having avoided thus far.
The Europa League is regarded as the domain of hated rivals Tottenham. For years now, Arsenal fans have gleefully made alternative plans for Thursday nights while Spurs supporters trudge into White Hart Lane to see their club half-heartedly compete with Europe’s perennial runners-up.
It’s a ‘nearly’ competition for clubs who ‘nearly’ made the Champions League. It lacks the glitz, glamour and financial boons of its vaunted big brother. In domestic terms, it’s the League Cup to the Champions League’s FA Cup. Even the likes of Spurs see it as an opportunity to rotate players and afford game-time to promising youngsters.
The schedule doesn’t help. Much of the skepticism surrounding the Europa League stems from the fact that it’s seen as an active detriment to a Premier League campaign. The Thursday night fixtures are perilously close to the weekend, while playing all league fixtures on the Sunday means you can be caught in a constant game of catch-up. For a club with aspirations of being in the thick of the title race, it’s problematic.
However, there is a prize to be won. Should Arsenal drop into the Europa League, they would automatically be seen as one of the favourites to lift the trophy. The fact that being eliminated from the Champions League can lead directly to a greater chance of success in an alternative European competition may seem perverse, but that does not change the fact that the Gunners would stand a real chance of making it to the latter stages.
If Arsenal are presented with that opportunity, they should seize it. Having finished without silverware in nine out of the last 11 years, the Gunners cannot afford to be precious about which prizes they’ll consider worthy. The FA Cup is third on their stated list of priorities, but look at the fervour with which the Arsenal fans celebrated their triumphs in 2014 and 2015. Europa League glory would surely be met with the same scenes of jubilation.
Since the inaugural Europa League in 2009-10 season, the list of competition winners reads Atletico Madrid, Porto, Chelsea and Sevilla. Those are huge clubs, two of which have also won the Champions League in the recent past. Arsenal would not embarrassed to be in that company. Who knows, perhaps reaching the latter stages of the Europa League would give them a confidence boost for their next Champions League campaign?
There’s a long way to go before any of this comes to pass.
Perhaps Arsenal will beat the odds and make the Champions League knockout stage; perhaps they’ll fail to climb any higher than fourth place and be left to concentrate on domestic issues. However, if they finish in third place, they shouldn’t despair.
The Europa League ought to be viewed as an opportunity for redemption, not a punishment.
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