Mid-Season Report: Arsenal Remain The Premier League's Team to Beat


Even if you’re Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, winning the Champions League should always be regarded as a long shot.

Think back to all those years of Man United domination, yet Sir Alex Ferguson only snared it twice. Jose Mourinho’s original all-powerful Chelsea side didn’t have what it takes, and Arsene Wenger - even with Henry, Bergkamp and Pires at his disposal – couldn’t bring home the bacon.

Fighting through Europe’s best to be the last man standing is easier said than done. It’s a glorious, shiny, really rather colossal, jug-eared bonus ball. 

 

Let’s cut Arsenal a little slack, shall we?

Successfully negotiating a group stage which included Borussia Dortmund and Napoli, Jurgen Klopp and Rafa Benitez, Robert Lewandowski and Gonzalo Higuain, the Yellow Wall and the San Paolo roar, shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. Four wins and 12 points isn’t just respectable, it’s a fabulous return, even if some of Thursday’s newspapers are choosing to label the Gunners as ‘losers’.

Suddenly everybody’s getting their knickers in a twist over who Arsenal will be paired with in the next stage, but I couldn’t care less.

Does running into one of the tournament favourites in the Round of 16, the last eight, or even the semi-final truly matter? Second place means precious little to Arsenal, so I’d say no.

Unless it’s their destiny to go all the way in 2014, defeat at any stage would be equally unfortunate, yet no more catastrophic than the other. The team’s quest for glory in the Premier League may even benefit from an early European exit. Don’t shout that too loudly though.

 

For now, it suits the critics to claim the wheels are coming off of Arsenal’s season.

On the back of two ordinary displays against Everton and Napoli, and knowing that Manchester City and Chelsea lie in wait - ready to puncture their morale and aspirations further - the haters are back out from behind the hedges. They predict that everything we’ve seen so far from the Gunners will suddenly be undone in a puff of blue smoke before Christmas.  While performance levels have certainly dipped this week, I still don’t see that happening.

There’s too much verve in the squad for a couple of minor setbacks to send Arsene Wenger’s men dramatically off course. Even if the swashbuckling performances dry up, their organisation, team spirit, determination and talent will keep them in the mix.

But, first place is all that matters to Arsenal this season. So, what is it going to take for them to push on and land a major prize? Aside from continuing what they’ve done so far, my old club could do with the help of two old friends. Good fortune and a world class striker.

Luck, as Chelsea discovered when winning the Champions League in 2012, is of paramount importance. And for Arsenal that means keeping both central defenders, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud fit and healthy. With a few crucial refereeing decisions going in their favour for good measure, that may be fortuitous enough.

 

Everything rests on the arrival of a top class centre-forward in January.

While Olivier Giroud is performing out of his skin, doing a phenomenal job for the side, an alternative with X-factor would help to swing more tight matches in the Gunners’ favour.

I’m not talking about ditching the Frenchman. He just needs somebody to compete with him for a place, and to rotate with when necessary. If that player has a yard of pace, a flash of unexpected mobility, and a clinical finish, it would provide Wenger with an option of significant importance for the run-in.  Without it, too much may rely on chance.

Irrespective of what happened last night in Naples, the Gunners have always been and will remain long shots to win the Champions League this season. Who isn’t?

The Premier League is different. If those two old friends turn up in the New Year, the odds on the Gunners finishing top of the pile will continue to tumble.

 

Arsenal travel to Manchester City in the pick of the weekend's games - check the latest odds here.

Read more from Unibet columnist Adrian Clarke.