11 December 2013

Arsenal 0-2 Napoli: killing the Group of Death

Okay, okay, okay. I was wrong, and it isn't the first time, nor will it be the last. I predicted a 2-0 win with goals from Giroud and Walcott. Giroud very nearly scored early on, but Walcott didn't even see the pitch except from the bench. So it goes. In the end, we backed our way into the knockout stage and by a narrower-than-necessary margin. A 3-0 scoreline would have sent Napoli through and relegated us to playing Spursdays in the Europa; as it ends up, we eked out a victory that, while less than inspiring, extends a fourteen-year streak of advancing past the group-stage.

It didn't have to be this way, Gonzo...
Speaking of group-stages, when the draw was announced, the term "group of death" was bandied about. It's a sign of how much progress we've made since then that, instead of fretting about whether we'd qualify at all, we're now griping about finishing second in the group. Such has been our form that we've come to expect the caviar-esque first-place finish as if it's a birthright, and to fall short of that is not the travesty or the tragedy that some are making it out to be. Yes, I know that I stomped my own feet and insisted that we should play to win, and it doesn't seem like we quite did that, but we're through. We're hardly the first squad to squeak through to the next round.

Yes, the draw for the knockout is a bit tougher than it might have been, but the whole point of the Champions League is that there are very few cake-walks. We'll be drawn against PSG, Bayern, Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Atletico Madrid. Six months ago, a few of those names would have struck fear in my heart. Heck, I even asked why we should bother trying against Bayern only to eat my words.

At some point or another, after all, we're going to have to beat one or more of those clubs if we're to win the Champions League. The fact that the bell tolls for us a round earlier than we might have preferred is perhaps unfortunate, but it doesn't fundamentally change the equation. Going into the season, I'd wager that most of us saw the knockout stage itself as a distant goal, and anything beyond that as pure gravy. Well, we've transcended those meager hopes, and the curse of it is that we have come to see a wish as a guarantee, and the achievement of that goal now seems a bit tarnished. Rather than rue an opportunity lost, why not, for once, celebrate an opportunity seized?

There's a pathology at work here, a self-loathing of sorts, that prevents us from admitting progress or quality. On its face, yes, we lost and let slip an opportunity to face Bayer Leverkusen, Galatasaray, Olympiakos, Schalke 04, Zenit St. Petersburg, or AC Milan—but these are no slouches. Yes, we've finished second in the group and will face stiffer competition in the knockout, but it's still miles ahead of where we might have predicted a few months ago.

At the start of the season, even after the Özil signing, few of us would have been so bold as to predict a Champions League title. If we crash out in the knockout, so be it. My sights are set on the Prem League. This may change should we bring in a striker in January, be he cup-tied or not.  It would have been nice to send notice to our rivals, Prem or otherwise, but when you're competing at this level, there's not a lot of fear to be instilled in those rivals. I don't think anyone in Barcelona, Paris, or Munich is feeling calmer thanks to this scoreline. If anything, they're looking at the full tapestry we've woven so far and wondering why they may be so unfortunate as to draw us. After all, we're almost certainly the most threatening draw for those first-place finishers. I'm not saying we're a top-flight squad by any means, but we have beaten last year's UCL champion and runner-up.

Go ahead, then, and celebrate the loss. Ironic though it may be, it was enough, just enough, to see us through to the next round. Yeah, it complicates the fixtures for February and March (and beyond?) but that's an embarrassment of riches. So be it.