In many ways, Arsène Wenger’s career will be remembered for the ‘what-if?’ moments as much as the never-ending supply of entertainment, quite literally from the sublime to the ridiculous; Arsenal‘s 1-0 win away to Real Madrid with a back four of Emmanuel Eboué, Kolo Touré, Philippe Senderos and Mathieu Flamini is just one example of both the former and the latter. What if he had gone to Bayern Munich in 1994, just months before he was sacked by Monaco, or the plethora of other footballing superpowers who have courted his services during his career? What if the title challenges in 1998-99, 2002-03, 2007-08 and beyond had not faltered? What if Roman Abramovich and the cult of the billionaire owner had never arrived in football?
That which will be left to hypotheticals more than anything else, however, is what might have been in Europe. Wenger has embarked on no fewer than 25 campaigns on the continent so far, but as he enters his 26th, he is yet to lift any silverware. This series looks at some of the chances at glory which he has missed, many of which will haunt both him and his fans for life.
For part one of the series, 1997-2000, click here.
The Annals of Arsenal’s Missed Opportunities in Europe: 2000-2003
Following their defeat in the 2000 UEFA Cup final, Arsenal went through several changes. Over the summer, Nigel Winterburn, Davor Šuker, Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit all left the club, and Arsène Wenger signed no fewer than eight new players. This meant that the Gunners looked unrecognisable compared to their ‘double’ winners of 1998. Perhaps the most significant difference of all, however, was that with the old Wembley gone, the team went back to playing European home games at Highbury.
Another poor league performance was overshadowed by the devastatingly late (and controversial) FA Cup final defeat to Liverpool, but in some ways, the Champions League quarter-final exit was just as disappointing. Had they made it to the last four, Arsenal would still have had difficult games to get through, but what might have been in this campaign will itch away at many Arsenal fans for years to come.
Wenger’s new-look side drew Lazio, Shakhtar Donetsk and Sparta Prague in the first group stage. They qualified for the second group stage with a game to spare, which included a stunning comeback from 2-0 down against Shakhtar, with Martin Keown scoring the equaliser and winner late on; a 1-1 draw and 2-0 win against Lazio; and two wins against Sparta Prague, whose promising talent, Tomas Rosicky, grabbed a consolation goal in the game at Highbury.
There followed two humiliating defeats. The first was an insignificant 3-0 reverse away to Shakhtar after qualification was already ensured, but in the first match of the second group stage, another trip to Eastern Europe saw Spartak Moscow thrash their opponents 4-1 in three inches of snow. This was Arsenal’s heaviest defeat in Europe to date.
In the next match, Highbury hosted Bayern Munich, and the home team squandered a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2. Suddenly, the Gunners were one or two more bad results away from elimination. Two wins and a draw in their next three games, however, ensured that they made it through to a quarter-final against a strong Valencia side.
In the first leg, at Highbury, Wenger’s men were 1-0 down at half-time despite dominating the first half and even hitting the woodwork. In the second half, they rallied to win 2-1 after goals from Thierry Henry and Ray Parlour. Despite their triumph, they had every reason to feel some regret both at conceding an away goal and missing several chances to increase their lead. These missed opportunities proved crucial as they lost 1-0 in the second leg and crashed out on away goals.
The game at the Mestalla was incredibly frustrating for Arsenal. A tense 90 minutes saw them defend well and create plenty of chances, but they failed to break the deadlock and paid the price when John Carew’s headed goal settled the tie in Valencia’s favour. As in the first leg, Henry missed one or two big chances, and quite simply, they should have gone through to the last four, where they would have faced Leeds United. The club could easily have reached its first Champions League final.
Causes and Effects of Failure
Like many modes of misery over the years, defeats on away goals have become all too familiar in North London. Arsenal’s lack of caution in the home tie certainly cost them, but what really hurt them was the hatful of missed chances in both legs. Early on in the home leg, Patrick Vieira missed from two yards to open the scoring, and later on there were several opportunities to make it 3 or 4-1. The way they threw away the away leg was even worse.
It may seem bizarre to say this about one of the greatest strikers in the history of football, but the game has seen better finishers under pressure than Thierry Henry. The Frenchman did not score many ordinary goals in his career, but he spurned several ordinary chances, and this cost Arsenal in Europe on a number of occasions. Certainly, he could easily have made the difference against Valencia.
Wenger and his side put the previous season’s miseries aside to win a second Premier League and FA Cup ‘double’, but their performances in the Champions League were dreadful in comparison. Across the two group stages, they lost six games and considering the level of opposition they were up against, there was no excuse not to make it through to the knockout rounds.
The Gunners drew Panathinaikos, Schalke and Mallorca in their first group. Defeats in all three of their away ties, as well as their failure to keep a clean sheet in away of their games, meant that they scraped through to the next stage on head-to-head.
The next group featured Juventus, Bayer Leverkusen, and Deportivo de La Coruña. Another terrible away performance saw them lose 2-0 to the latter, but after that England’s champions-elect started to turn things around. A brilliant 3-1 win over the Italians was followed by a 1-1 draw in Germany; a late equaliser from the home side snatched away a first Champions League away win in six attempts. In the return match against Leverkusen, Arsenal really turned on the style as they won 4-1.
It looked like Wenger was on his way to a second successive quarter-final. Until his side put in one of the worst performances of his reign, that is. Deportivo won 2-0 at Highbury, meaning that the home side now needed to win away to Juventus to make it to the next round. What should have been a simple home victory was a genuine embarrassment, and they lost the game in Turin 1-0 to exit the competition.
Causes and Effects of Failure
Teams can go a long way in the Champions League purely by keeping clean sheets. Arsenal’s consistently shocking defensive performances meant that they were destined not to go far in 2002. They failed to keep a single clean sheet in 12 matches and conceded a shocking 17 goals. With the exception of 2005-06, this habit of leaking silly goals in Europe has continued to infect the Gunners, and goes some way to explaining their early exits in this and many other seasons.
Arguably, Arsenal played their best football under Wenger in this season, tearing teams apart with incomparable style and speed. A lack of ability to know what to do when they weren’t tearing teams apart, however, meant that they failed to win a league title which was theirs to lose, as well as another potential chance at European glory.
The Gunners secured qualification to the second group stage within their first three games, as they beat Borussia Dortmund, PSV Eindhoven and Auxerre, keeping three clean sheets in the process. Their next three games were unimpressive, but they made it through top of their group regardless.
The first game of the second group stage was an incredibly satisfying win away to Roma. Thierry Henry set the Stadio Olimpico alight, scoring one of the best hat-tricks in Champions League history to secure a 3-1 victory. Arsenal failed to push on from this excellent performance, drawing their next four games: at home to Valencia, home and away against Ajax, and at home to Roma.
This meant that they needed to get a result away to Valencia to make it through to the quarter-final. Alas, the Spanish side and John Carew, who scored a brace, would be their tormentors again and they lost 2-1. That season, Arsenal played the kind of quality football which could have seen off any team in the world, so their failure to make the knockout round and take on the world’s best was a spectacle which both the team and fans the world over missed.
Causes and Effects of Failure
Wenger said in 2003: “If we played Madrid in the Champions League we would win. I’d take bets on that.” This prediction came true a few years later, but the constant slip-ups against lesser opposition meant that he never got the chance to make good on his word in that particular campaign.
The defensive performances greatly improved compared to the season before, although they conceded a few needless goals, but the theme of missed chances continued. The four consecutive draws in the second group stage, in which Arsenal were mostly dominant, which really dug their grave.
These three seasons seemed to set the trend for Arsenal in future seasons. Chances were missed, goals were leaked and, most importantly, the team folded in all too many tense situations. Had any one of these campaigns turned out a bit differently, fortunes on the continent could easily have improved over the coming seasons. In reality, despite one or two long runs in the tournament, things only got more depressing. These future disappointments will be discussed in the next part of the series.