Arsenal have not played Champions League football for six years. The Gunners were once as much a part of the competition as the iconic theme tune or star-emblazoned ball. Arsenal played in the competition for 17 consecutive years between the 2000/01 season and the 2016/17 campaign. Now they return to the competition and yet it feels different. While they last pitched up to Europe’s blue riband competition in 2017, they haven’t felt like a credible winner in far, far longer.
How times have changed. Betfred only has three sides priced shorter than the Gunners to take home ‘Ol Big Ears this season. Holders Manchester City are the favourites with perennial contenders Bayern Munich second and Real Madrid, the most successful team in the history of the tournament. in third. Arsenal are fourth-favourites with the bookmaker, who are offering 10/1 on Mikel Arteta’s team going all the way. The fact they are above the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona in the betting tells you how far this side has come.
Legendary former manager Arsene Wenger was perhaps not appreciated for his 17 consecutive Champions League qualifications. The last six years spent on the outside looking in has finally given his achievement the credit it deserves. Arsenal and their fans became complacent.
They wrongly assumed the north London giants would reside in the top four forever. That a place in Europe’s elite competition was their birthright. There is little wonder that Arsenal were one of the club’s who signed up to the ill-fated European Super League. The idea of playing in a lucrative annual continental competition without the small matter of qualifying for it held obvious appeal. But that project blew up in the face of not only Arsenal but Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur as well as other European giants.
Little matter, for Arsenal are back at Europe’s top table under their own steam. This time is different. While Wenger’s Cal Ripken-like streak of Champions League qualification was deeply impressive, Arsenal’s performance in the competition itself had eroded. The Gunners went out in the round of 16 in the last seven seasons they played in the tournament. They only reached the final once, back in 2006 when they lost 2-1 to Barcelona. Arsenal may have been Champions League regulars, but they rarely stayed until closing time.
But this time they come into the tournament buoyed by their best Premier League finish since the Wenger era. Arsenal ended up in second last season, but not before giving Manchester City a title race to remember. Arteta’s men are unbeaten this term too, winning four and drawing one of their five games.
A summer of spending has beefed up the squad considerably, with players like Declan Rice and Kai Havertz making the squad look Champions League-ready. Add to that players like Martin Odegaard who look built for this competition and Arsenal are in a good place. Many will scoff at the idea of them winning the whole thing. But is this squad not stronger than the Liverpool vintage of 2005? The Chelsea winners of 2020? The Gunners would be far from the most surprising winners of the trophy.
At one time, taking part was enough for Arsenal. But Arteta will sense a rare opportunity here. Being better than City over the course of 38 games is a near-impossible task. One only Liverpool have accomplished in the last six years. But out-foxing them in cup competition is possible. Arsenal will be thrilled to take part. But don’t be too surprised if they take over.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change