Mar 062008


It is the day after the day after the night that was, and there is still a wonderful feeling of achievement around, after the vanquishing of the European champions AC Milan on Tuesday night. Instead of reflecting on what might have been, we are now looking forward with determination, first to Wigan this weekend, and then on to the Champions League quarter finals.

So far, Arsenal, United, Chelsea, Barcelona, Schalke, Fenerbahce and Roma have qualified. Liverpool will most likely join them, leaving the Premiership with four representatives, and no other league with more than one.

And it is a strong lineup. Schalke and Fenerbahce are the obvious weak links, so Chelsea will undoubtedly draw one of them, but are they really who we want anyway?

Two seasons ago we performed heroically against Real Madrid and Juventus, before scratching past Villareal and raising our game again against Barcelona in the final. Last season, the modest PSV, who Spurs will likely beat tonight, knocked us out before being exposed by Liverpool in the next round.

And this season, we supposedly got the hard draw in Milan, before dispatching them with a ruthless and fantastic performance on Tuesday night. Meanwhile, Sevilla, our group winners, crashed out to Fenerbahce despite being strong favourites.

The Champions League is an unpredictable beast, and it seems Arsenal play to their best whenever the match requires it, especially against the top opposition. There is something about an illustrious opponent that you have yet to defeat that makes you raise your game to unprecedented levels. On the flip side, a stubborn but inferior opponent can force you out of your stride and unexpectedly send you packing.

So for me, Fenerbahce and Schalke aren’t necessarily the dream draws. Of course we’ll be favourites if we get one of them, but to me it is more important to avoid another of the Premiership sides. All three potential opponents from our domestic league would be difficult in Europe, even Liverpool with their stuttering domestic play. Give me a choice between Barcelona and a Premiership side, and I’d take the Spaniards.

With all four English representatives likely to be present in the quarter finals, them being kept apart is unlikely. Let’s hope we avoid the inevitable combination.

Schalke won’t win it. Fenerbahce won’t win it. Roma aren’t really good enough either, so Barcelona are now probably the only side capable of stopping a Premiership side lifting the trophy. When you consider that we are top of that particular league, you can see just why we are a true contender.

Give us Barca, I say.

Meanwhile, David ‘odious’ Bentley has decided to pitch into the club he claims to have left behind, by suggesting that Theo Walcott might have to leave Arsenal to save his career:

“If he is not getting the minutes at Arsenal, he’s going to have to look elsewhere.”

“Your career doesn’t start and end at Arsenal. It can flourish somewhere else.”

He’s right, it can. But on the other hand, if you want to be part of something special, you won’t run from the big club because you can’t face the competition, you’ll stay and become the integral part of a magical puzzle that the manager wants you to be.

Walcott is 18. He is in the best club in the world for promoting youngsters. Sure, he could shine at a lesser club, but how will he be a better player than if he sticks it out at Arsenal and waits for his moment? Anyone who has watched him recently can tell you that it is coming.

And it could’ve done for Bentley too, if he’d grown up and had the patience to wait for Pires and Ljungberg to step aside. He wasn’t in their class, and he still isn’t. Walcott, on the other hand, has a massive future at a massive club. Bentley has a future in midtable, which he unconsciously acknowledges:

“You want to play football for a start and you want to make money as well.”

Ah yes, money. No mention of trophies, achievements or team accolades, which the top players strive for. No, he wants regular football and money. You’re not missed, Bentley, don’t worry about that.

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