The Parken Stadium in Copenhagen couldn’t quite believe it as Alan Smith’s left foot volley sailed past Luca Bucci, hit the post and rippled the back of the net. Arsenal went on to win the 1994 Cup Winner Cup Final and in doing so beat a team which consisted of some the worlds best players. Fans of the North London club will forever remember Faustino Asprilla, Tomas Brolin Gianfranco Zola and Lorenzo Minotti all stood, hands on hips, wondering how they had just been kept out for the entire game. Football is primarily about emotions, the here and now and about memories and it is for this reason, that the Europa League should be important for Arsenal.
Ask any Arsenal fan and it won’t be just the Final they remember from that year. It will be the Ian Wright goal in the semi-finals against PSG, the tense ties against Torino and the 7-0 thrashing of Standard Liege, including ‘that’ goal, from Eddie McGoldrick. It isn’t just Arsenal either, ask Inter fans about the UEFA Cup in 1998 and they will tell you about the Final with Lazio and Javier Zanetti’s strike, but they will also remember the double from Ronaldo in the semi final in Moscow. The point is that, so many emotions come from European success and the structure and magnitude of these competitions should not be belittled. They provide memories, and these are the essence of what football fans crave.
Arsenal fans in particular should crave these more than most. Often branded as one of Europe’s elite teams, the lack of European success in their history is startling. They have two European honours: The Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1970 and the Cup Winners' Cup in 1994 both competitions remembered with pride but now no longer exist. After Copenhagen the record became a miserable one, a defeat in 1995 in Paris by Real Zaragoza is forever etched in the memory thanks to Nayim. Then five years later back in Copenhagen they could not repeat their victory in the ground, losing on penalties to Galatasaray. Finally, and perhaps more disappointingly it was back in Paris that they lost to Barcelona despite leading with 10 men and 15 minutes to go.
Arsenal have now reached the knock-out stages of the competition and with the domestic league out of reach before Christmas, it is arguably where Arsene Wenger’s focus should lie. He for one has never brought European silverware to North London and it is a slight on his otherwise superb record. This could be his final gift to a club that is craving recognition on the highest stage, and what’s more the path to Parc Olympique Lyonnais is not insurmountable.
Forget the narrative that if Arsenal win the competition (e.g.; Manchester United last year) then this will breed serial winners. Yes, it will help their mentality, but the FA Cups have not brought any domestic league titles to The Emirates. This is now about winning the Europa League for the simple glory of doing so. Ask Sevilla if their streak of winning it hasn’t brought more to the fans than simply acting as a stepping stone to the next stage.
Arsenal are seeded for the next round along with Villarreal, Milan, RB Salzburg, Lazio, CSKA Moscow, Atletico Madrid, RB Leipzig, and Sporting Club Portugal. (at the time of writing) Therefore, they cannot be drawn against each other. The dangers from here on in lie with the likes of Napoli, Dortmund, (Atalanta or Lyon depending on results) or a beleaguered Nice, there of course is no guarantee but Arsenal will fancy themselves. Moving forward, Napoli, Lazio, Atleti and Dortmund would be dangerous, but Napoli are fighting for the Scudetto and it remains to be seen how Borussia can regenerate. Lazio are in form and nobody ever wants to fight Atleti, but the fact is The Gunners remain amongst the favourites.
To win the Europa League would not only provide Arsenal with a new senior honour they could be proud of, but it would also transform their image on the European circuit. No longer simply annual bottlers in the Champions League they would be classed as serious opposition that Europe’s top teams would not want to face. This in itself may benefit a Champions League campaign and give them confidence about being able to win in Europe. Really though, Arsenal fans just want another Alan Smith moment.