Having suffered defeats to Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiakos in their opening two Champions League group matches, before later being humbled 5-1 by Bayern Munich, it took some turnaround simply for Arsenal to scrape into the Round of 16. They completed the great escape with an impressive 3-0 win over Olympiakos in Piraeus to progress thanks to a superior head-to-head record over the Greek champions. After making it past the first group phase, manager Arsene Wenger expressed his hope that his side can take real confidence from their decisive win when the competition restarts.
“I think it will make us stronger and strengthen the belief of the squad,” he said. “It is a special night for us because, as we said before the game, we were in escape mode. We needed something special and when you can deliver something special it can create a positive memory for the rest of the season. Maybe it’s a lucky year for us in the Champions League, you never know.”
But, in truth, making the Champions League knockout phase is the bare minimum that should be expected for a club of Arsenal’s stature. The real business begins now. And given that Wenger’s side have been sent packing at the Round of 16 for the past five seasons when, like this time around, finishing as group runners-up, all eyes will be on next Monday’s draw.
Here are the teams Arsenal could be going up against next February and March.
Not a team Arsenal will be particularly eager to be drawn against. Real Madrid scored 19 goals in their six group matches, with Cristiano Ronaldo bagging a record-setting 11, and only dropped points in a draw away at Paris Saint-Germain. Given the vulnerability Arsenal, despite improvements in his area, can still show when relinquishing the ball, Real Madrid’s counter-attacking prowess, with Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and James Rodríguez, is a frightening prospect. Yet much depends on what state Real Madrid will be in come next February. Just a few months into his reign, there have already been strong reports of dissension within the squad toward the methods of former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez. If the mood within a club that always appear rife with drama deteriorates further, Arsenal could have a chance.
Certainly one of the more favorable draws Arsenal could get, although one they would be unwise to take lightly. The loss of Kevin de Bruyne, who was the man most responsible for propelling them to second place in the Bundesliga this season, proved difficult to overcome initially. But Dieter Hecking’s side showed the quality they do still have with a thrilling 3-2 victory over Manchester United on the final matchday to not only secure progression but do so as group winners. Particularly impressive was young Germany international Julian Draxler, who was once close to a move to Arsenal, but is likely to be the chief threat to the Gunners’ hopes should they face off in the last 16.
Under Diego Simeone, Atlético have become one of the toughest sides to go up against in Europe. Champions League finalists in 2014 and quarterfinalists last season, Atlético conceded just three goals in six matches en route to finishing ahead of Benfica in Group C this time around. They also sit second in La Liga, with by far the best defensive record in the division, and Arsenal would have their work cut out to break down the superbly disciplined Spanish outfit. Going forward, Atlético can also call upon real quality, chiefly in the form of Antoine Griezmann. Wenger’s tactical mettle will be tested to the limit should he come up against Simeone’s men.
Surely the club that Arsenal will least want to be paired with. First, there’s the fact that Barcelona have been responsible from eliminating Arsenal from the Champions League twice in the last six seasons. And it was the Catalans who also came out on top in the Gunners’ only final in the competition, in 2006. But, as well as history, there’s the current reality that Barcelona are arguably playing the best soccer in the world, and boast the most devastating forward trio of all time. Arsenal’s defense may have shut own Olympiakos, but Lionel Messi, Neymar and the man who Arsenal once infamously tried to sign with a bid of £40 million and £1, Luis Suárez, will present a very different quality of opponent. As if that weren’t enough, by the time the Champions League restarts Barcelona’s transfer ban will be over, meaning they can add Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal to their squad.
Zenit St Petersburg
Given this is the first time Zenit have advanced past the Champions League Round of 16, they would certainly seem favorable opponents for Arsenal. There is also some dissension within the background of the Russian champions. The big spending of previous years has dried up, and was cited as one of the factors when Andre Villas-Boas announced that this season would be his last in St Petersburg. Domestically those problems have reared their head, with Zenit currently down in sixth in the Russian Premier League. But they have fared much better in Europe, where they were the only team with a perfect record through their first five group matches. Still, given that the first leg of the last 16 would take place before the Russian Premier League has restarted after a long winter break, it would be a massive disappointment were Arsenal to fall to Villas-Boas’ men. Then again, Arsenal are far from alien to such failings, given their dismal defeat to Monaco at the same stage last season.