Thursday, 15 December 2011

Arsenal's Potential Opponents In The Champions League Last 16

Arsenal were lucky enough to have wrapped up top place in their Champions League group with a game to spare, and their defeat to Olympiacos last week was meaningless in the greater scheme of things. By winning their group Arsenal will get to play the runners-up of one of the other groups in the last 16. They will also get to play the second leg of that last 16 tie at home, as that's another bonus afforded to group winners.

Another plus point for Arsenal will of course be that they will avoid both Barcelona and Real Madrid in the last 16, and as a result their chances of progressing will be a lot better. I'm not saying I think Arsenal are good enough to actually win the Champions League, but a place in the quarter finals or even the semi finals might not be beyond them. By the time the last 16 ties come around Arsenal should hopefully have Bacary Sagna, Andre Santos, and Jack Wilshere back from their long-term injuries, and they will be a huge boost to the team.

Arsenal also have plenty of money to spend in the January transfer window, and the lure of Champions League football for any potential targets. Of course most of the best players will already be cup-tied for this season, but there are still a few targets who are not. Even if they sign any top quality cup-tied players it will strengthen their squad, and allow them the possibility of resting players before Champions League games.
The draw for the last 16 will be made this Friday December 16th, and Arsenal have seven potential opponents. I will attempt to assess those opponents, and the relative chances for Arsenal against each of them in the last 16.

Group A Runners-Up: Napoli
Napoli were runners-up to Bayern Munich in Group A of this season's Champions League. They finished ahead of Premier League leaders Manchester City in that group, and they would be a tough opponent for Arsenal. They are currently fifth in the Italian league, and they will have to make up some ground to finish in the Champions League places for next season.

Group B Runners-Up: CSKA Moscow

CSKA just about managed to qualify for the last 16 by winning away to Inter Milan in their last group game with a  very late goal. They struggled in their group, but their artificial pitch is a distinct advantage to them in home games. Arsenal have a reputation for struggling when they travel to Russia, and they would probably prefer to avoid such a long trip for a midweek game.

Group C Runners-Up: FC Basel 

Basel surpassed all expectations by finishing second in group C, and knocking out English champions Manchester United. They had to win their last game at home to United to qualify for the last 16, and they just about managed to do so. They're currently on top of the Swiss league, but it's not exactly the toughest league in Europe.

Basel would be an opponent Arsenal would be expected to beat, and I would be quite happy to see them drawn against them. They could also be a potential banana skin for Arsenal, as they showed by winning at home to United and drawing away to them.

Group D Runners-Up: Lyon 

Lyon needed to win by a huge score in their last group game away to Dinamo Zagreb, and they managed a 7-1 win in the end to qualify ahead of Ajax. There were some questions asked about the scoreline and the apparent lack of effort by some of the Zagreb players, but UEFA have said they are happy with the outcome.

Lyon no longer dominate French football like they did a few seasons ago, but they are still challenging at the top of their domestic league. They wouldn't be the worst opponent for Arsenal, but their know how at this level cannot be underestimated either.

Group E Runners-Up: Bayer Leverkusen 

Leverkusen were runners-up to Chelsea in group E, and they finished ahead of Spanish team Valencia. They looked good in their group, but they are by no means world beaters. They are currently sixth in the German league, and they will be challenging for a Champions League place yet again this season.

Arsenal would be firm favourites if they drew Leverkusen, and I would be quite happy with the draw too.

Group G Runners-Up: Zenit St. Petersburg 

Zenit finished second to Apoel Nicosia in group G, and they just about managed to beat Porto to the runners-up spot. They're a good team who play good football, but they're also an opponent that Arsenal could expect to beat. A trip to Russia in February would not be an ideal game for Arsenal, as they tend to struggle in that part of the world.

I think Arsenal could overcome any trip to Russia and progress to the last eight if they were to draw Zenit. The Russian league season will only be getting underway at that stage, and that might give Arsenal a distinct advantage.

Group H Runners-Up: AC Milan
Milan are veterans of the Champions League and it's predecessor the European Cup. They have been in 11 finals, and they have won it seven times altogether. They are the current Italian champions, and they are just off the top of their domestic table again this season.

They only lost one of their group games, and that was against holders Barcelona when Milan had already qualified for the last 16. On the face of it they are the toughest potential opponents for Arsenal, but I think Arsenal are good enough to beat them. I haven't been overly impressed by Milan when I have seen them play, but it would be foolish to underestimate them too.

Whoever Arsenal draw it will be a much better draw than the English teams playing in the Europa League get. It's quite incredible to have seen both Manchester clubs failing in their groups, and it makes Arsenal's achievement of qualifying yet again all the better.

That's it for today.

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