Fresh from a first home win of the season, Arsenal will begin their quest to end a succession of Champions League disappointments with a trip to Dinamo Zagreb on Wednesday. Despite a troubled start, Arsenal have begun to find their feet in the Premier League, with a 2-0 win victory over Stoke City on Saturday lifting them up to fourth place in the early standings. After so much talk about Arsene Wenger’s striking options, the Arsenal manager will have been relieved, too, to see both Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud get on the scoresheet.
Attention now, though, turns to the Gunners assault on Europe. Drawn into a group that also contains Olympiakos and Tuesday’s opponents in Croatia, Dinamo, Arsenal start as strong favorites to progress alongside Bayern Munich. But there must surely be a determination to try and go through to the knockout stage as group winners.
Arsenal’s consistency in the Champions League is remarkable, having progressed from the first group phase in each of the last 15 seasons. Yet for the past five seasons the London club have finished second in their group before being disposed of in the Round of 16. It has become an increasingly frustrating pattern. And for a club that now has resources matched by only a select few clubs across Europe and can count on players of the caliber of Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil, it represents a sizable failure. It is now high time that Arsenal begun punching their weight on Europe’s biggest stage.
Going toe-to-toe with Bayern for top spot would be a good place to start. In the past five years, Bayern have ended Arsenal’s hopes twice, with European giants Barcelona and Milan also accounting for the Gunners in the last 16 as they paid the price for finishing runners-up and earning a meeting with a group winner. Yet last season, despite again finishing second, Arsenal could have no complaints about a tough draw and yet were still sent packing thanks to a woeful showing against Monaco.
Complacency appeared to play a huge part in a 3-1 defeat in the first leg at the Emirates and Wenger is keen for his players to be switched on from the start of this season’s Champions League.
“It is important we go to Zagreb highly focused and conscious at what is at stake there,” he said, according to Arsenal’s official website. “You can be quickly out of the Champions League and we want to start well and we know we have a battle first to qualify with Bayern Munich [in the group].
"You need to find the balance between urgency and confidence and at times that is difficult as you can quickly be too confident and lose your urgency.
“We have Olympiakos and Zagreb first and we have to finish above them and the result will come down to that. I think it is important to start well because the hunger of a team is shown as well in how well you go in every competition.”
In truth, Arsenal’s first opponents should not provide the stiffest of challenges. Dinamo Zagreb will be competing in the Champions League group stage for just the fourth time, and for the first time in three years. Last season, they failed to make it out of the group stage for the Europa League, after suffering a humbling 5-1 home at the hands of Red Bull Salzburg.
And yet, Dinamo could hardly be coming into the match in better form. Under coach Zoran Mamić, Dinamo became the first team ever to go through an entire Croatian top division season unbeaten en route to the title. And their unbeaten streak now stands at a remarkable 41 matches in all competitions. It is quite the achievement for a young squad, which includes Chilean forward Angelo Henriquez, who signed on a permanent deal from Manchester United this summer and who scored a decisive goal against Molde to get Dinamo into the group phase.
For the trip to the Stadion Maksimir, Arsenal could again be without defender Per Mertesacker, who is continuing to recover from a virus. Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck and Tomas Rosicky are definitely ruled out.
Prediction: Dinamo’s unbeaten run is fine achievement, but it will be a steep step up in class against Arsenal. And, while it may take the Gunners a while to get going, they should seal a comfortable victory.
Predicted score: Dinamo Zagreb 0-2 Arsenal