It is difficult to measure this season in terms of the expectations of Arsenal fans. Most Gunners did not expect a title challenge after the difficult summer transfer window, yet some would have expected a stronger challenge for the Champions League places. Of course, just a little bit over half-way through the Premier League season, that goal can be still achieved, but most fans will admit that it is looking less and less likely.
This article will take a look at the two main routes back into the Champions League next season – the Europa League and Top 4 – and take a look at Arsenal’s chances, bookmakers’ odds and highlight what must go right to succeed.
Europa League – Tough Route to the Promised Land
While it may be better for the neutral spectator, it is somewhat unfortunate for Arsenal to find such a strong field in the Europa League Last 32. Borussia Dortmund, Napoli and Atlético Madrid are among the big names who joined after the Champions’ League group stages, making the competition one of the strongest in memory. Still, if you bet on Arsenal with William Hill you will see that the Britain’s oldest bookmaker has priced them at 9/2 second-favourites. Atlético are the favourites at 7/2, with Dortmund and Napoli priced at 8/1 and 9/1 respectively.
It is going to be tough though. Certainly tougher than Manchester United’s easyrun to the Europa League Final last year. However, Arsenal have been given an easy(ish) draw against Ostersunds FK in the Last 32 and none of the teams mentioned above will want to face the Gunners in the later rounds. All three of Napoli, Dortmund and Atlético finished below English clubs in their Champions League groups. Arsenal fans should take a lot of confidence from that.
To succeed, Arsene Wenger must take the competition seriously. A second-string side may be good enough to get past Ostersunds, but there are perhaps a dozen other clubs who will be serious challengers to the type of line-up played during the group stages.
Top 4 – Defensive Inconsistency Proving Costly
At the moment, Arsenal are generally priced at 11/4 to finish in the Top 4 at the end of the season. That is sixth-favourite, with Spurs (5/4) the only other member of the ‘Big 6’ not found at odds-on prices. Lots could change between now and the end of the season, but infuriating consistency at the back must be sorted out first.
Clean sheets have been few and far between, with last one in the league coming on the 16th December against Newcastle.But it is the home matches against Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool which must be reflected upon at the end of the season. In these games Arsenal either conceded minutes after taking the lead, or conceded two goals in quick succession. Cooler heads at the back could have seen better results in these crucial fixtures.
The race for the Top 4 is, of course, not finished yet. Spurs, Liverpool and Man Utd have all demonstrated frailties which could be exploited by Arsenal. However, the fear is that Arsenal’s own short-comings will see them squander any opportunity to take advantage. In that respect, looking back to the Europa League and, perhaps seeing Wenger finally win a European title, might be the Gunners best route back to the Champions League.