Arsenal completed the great Champions League escape in some style at Olympiacos and although finishing second in the group exposes them to great danger in the knockout stages, the Gunners shouldn’t put a limit on their ambitions.
Undoubtedly the biggest threats to a possible quarter-final place will be Barcelona, ahead of fellow La Liga outfits Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid from the quintet of sides they could pull out of the hat.
A round-of-16 draw against either Wolfsburg or Zenit would clearly be far more favourable, but facing any team other than Barca would give Arsenal a proper fighting chance and there is an 80 per cent chance they will swerve the holders.
Here are five reasons this current crop of Gunners could make history and lift Europe’s top club prize for the first time, at odds of 18/1.
The character they have shown
Losing your first two group-stage games against the weakest sides in it, cannot be found anywhere in the Champions League success manual. However, lose them Arsenal did. Beating Bayern Munich was huge following such a disastrous start, as was bouncing back from another crushing defeat in Germany to win their final pair of group matches. The 3-0 win at Olympiacos was among the best performances the Londoners have ever produced in the competition.
Players due to return from injury
The injuries to key players mounted up in the latter stages of the group phase. Alexis Sanchez is currently the most notable on the sidelines, but Santi Cazorla’s absence is also felt, while the likes of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were missing for periods. By the time the knockouts get going Arsenal will almost certainly have Sanchez and possibly Cazorla back. Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere should be available too.
A strong desire to break the last-16 hoodoo
Arsene Wenger stretching his incredible record of qualifying from the group stages to 16 straight seasons will count for little if it means a sixth consecutive last-16 exit. The 2005/06 runners-up used to be a regular sight in the latter rounds and collectively they need to shake this monkey from their backs.
The forward firepower
Olivier Giroud took his season’s Champions League tally to five thanks to a fine hat-trick in Greece, silencing many of the Frenchman’s critics in the process. The France international is a far more integral player to the Gunners than he is given credit for, breaking into double figures comfortably in each season he’s been at the Emirates. Arsenal are spoiled for quality attackers, with Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, the emerging Joel Campbell and England stars Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain forming a formidable group.
Like Giroud, the German has been answering critics in the best possible fashion. Ozil has been pulling Arsenal’s strings all season and while he doesn’t score as many as Sanchez, he is just as important. The silky midfielder has notched two in the Champions League compared to three for the Chilean, but has played every minute, and only comes second to Cazorla in passes completed. Ozil is showing the kind of form that saw Wenger part with a record amount of cash for a player and if that continues, Arsenal’s chances of glory escalate.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.
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