Reviewing Arsenal’s Potential Opponents in the UCL Qualifiers
All it took was a shaolin kick from Laurent Koscielny in the last game of the 2012/13 campaign.
The players and fans alike went into raptures at the final whistle at St. James Park for more reasons than one. That game signaled the end of an amazing run of Premier League results that saw a beat-down Arsenal side grab 26 points from a possible 30, ensured that St. Totteringham’s Day was celebrated for the 17th year in a row and most importantly, the win guaranteed Arsenal a Champions League berth.
As our Muslim folks all around the world continue that Eid-el-Fitri celebrations, Arsenal fans will have their eyes firmly fixed on the team that would battle with them in a winner-takes-all event with the price being a place in the 2013/14 Champions League group phase.
In all honesty, Arsenal fans have become accustomed to playing in the qualifying round and there have been some games that bring fond memories – Aaron Ramsey’s debut in the game against FC Twente, William Gallas’ epic goal that hit his arse before going in against Celtic and who can forget the witchhunt on Eduardo da SIlva when he dived to win a penalty against Celtic as well.
Arsenal, as well as some other prestigious European sides, are ready to lock horns for the right to play in Europe’s elite club competition but as expected, there are rules for events like today’s upcoming draws that’s scheduled to take place around 10.45am (UK time).
Given Arsenal’s stature and high coefficient ratings in previous Champions League competitions in recent times (finalists in ’06, semifinalists in ’09, quartefinalists for a couple of seasons and of course, the countless first knockout phase appearances), they have been seeded alongside seven-time winners, AC Milan, 1997 Europa League winners, Schalke 04, 2008 Europa League winners, Zenit St. Petersburg and French heavyweights, Olympique Lyonnais.
Arsenal has had its fair share of history with AC Milan and I can’t look no further than the 2007/08 Champions League campaign where the Gunners ran out as 2-0 winners in the San Siro after a rather bore draw at the Emirates. As recent as last season, Arsenal had a double date with Schalke 04 and the Gunner’s impregnable home record in the competition against foreign opposition was shattered to bits when the Germans came to the Emirates.
I clearly can’t remember any games between Arsenal and the likes of Lyon or Zenit, except if the game was played when dinosaurs still existed.
With Arsenal avoiding these “seeded” teams, it’s pretty damn obvious that Arsene Wenger’s side will be drawn against one of the unseeded teams that qualified for the competition after a good campaign last season.
Here’s a quick review of Arsenal’s potential opponents.
FC Metalist Kharkiv (Ukraine)
FC Metalist Kharkiv booked a place in the qualifying round after a second place finish in the Ukrainian Premier League. Ukrainian juggernauts, Shakhtar Donetsk, ran away with the league title after finishing the campaign with 79 points and FC Metalist Kharkiv was some way off with 66 points.
Dortmund’s new acquisition, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, won the Golden Boot with 25 goals but he was followed closely by Dynamo Kiev’s Brown Ideye (17 goals) and FC Metalist Kharkiv’s Brazilian hotshot, Cleiton Xavier (15 goals). Shakhtar’s captain, Darijo Srna, topped the assist charts with 12 assist but he was followed closely by FC Metalist’s skipper, Jose Ernesto Sosa.
Sosa has a wealth of experience in Europe since leaving his native Argentine outfit, Estudiantes La Plata, to play in Bayern Munich and Napoli. In Sosa, the Ukrainians pose a genuine threat and the goalscoring exploits of Cleiton Xavier means that Arsenal would ignore him at their own peril.
FC Pacos de Ferreira (Portugal)
The 2012/13 Portuguese Superliga was a close shave with FC Porto winning their 27th league title with 78 points, just one point above second placed SL Benfica. These are more or less the Real Madrid and Barcelona of Portugal but you would have expected Sporting CP or SC Braga to clinch the final Champions League qualifying spot.
Sorry to burst your bubble but the spot was taken by surprise package, FC Pacos de Ferreira, which has been widely regarded as a monumental achievement for the club and their new manager, the Portuguese defensive midfield legend, Costinha. FC Porto’s current manager, Paulo Fonseca, guided the team to their historic third placed finish before resigning to manage the defending champions.
The seasoned cultured midfielder played in a host of European clubs as well as starring for his nation in Euro 2004 and the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Costinha would be fondly remembered in the role he played in the 2006 FIFA World Battle of Nuremberg where he, Deco, Khalid Boulahrouz and Giovanni van Bronckhorst all received red cards in Portugal’s heated clash against Germany.
Paulo Fonseca achieved wonders with this side despite operating with one of the lowest budgets in the Portuguese Superliga. The club’s initial aim last season was to stay clear off the relegation zone but with an attractive brand of football paved the way for a run of victories and draws that earned them a place in history.
I strongly believe that Arsenal and other seeded teams will be licking their lips at the prospect of playing FC Pacos but this team can be another Anorthosis Famagusta or APOEL Nicosia – they may shock the European football world and go all the way to the group stages.
Fenerbahce SK (Turkey)
The 2012/13 Turkish Super Lig saw Galatasaray run away with the league title and they were followed closely by Fenerbahce SK. The Turkish giants earned a place in the spotlight after securing mega deals in the January transfer window for former Chelsea hitman, Didier Drogba, and the Dutch playmaker, Wesley Sneijder. Fenerbahce on the other hand, secured deals for English Premier League trio of Dirk Kuyt, Joseph Yobo and Raul Meireles.
While Galatasaray enjoyed a decent campaign in the Champions League (who can forget their home clash against Real Madrid), Fenerbahce went all the way to the Europa League semifinals, before losing to SL Benfica. They managed to still end the season with silverware after beating Trabzonspor in the Turkish Cup final with their target man, Moussa Sow, doing what he knows best.
This Fenerbahce side has a very good measure of quality in several positions of the team with key players like Milos Krasic providing wit on the wings, an industrious Raul Meireles in midfield, the workhorse, Dirk Kuyt and in Moussa Sow, they pose a massive threat in attack.
Let’s not forget that they play their home games in the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium, a very hostile ground for visitors.
PSV Eindhoven (Holland)
Any time I think of PSV, memories of Gilberto Silva’s 17 seconds goal comes to my head and I go on to relive the highlights of that glorious night in the Philips Stadion.
With the goalscorers on the night, Gilberto Silva, Freddie Ljungberg and Thierry Henry now a part of Arsenal’s history, the Gunners could face the prospect of playing the Dutch outfit. One thing is for sure though – they will be without the influential Kevin Strootman and free-scoring Dries Mertens, that joined AS Roma and Napoli respectively this summer.
PSV ended last season in second place, seven points behind eventual winners, AFC Ajax. They also suffered heartbreak in the KVNB Dutch Cup, losing to AZ Alkmaar in the finals. Last season, they have six players that scored double figures with Dries Mertens scoring 18, Jeremain Lens scoring 19 while Tim Matavz and club captain, Georginio Wijnaldum scoring 20 goals apiece.
PSV might be unseeded but they’ll pose a great threat to Arsenal if they are paired with Arsene Wenger’s side. For those that don’t know, they have won the EreDivisie 21 times. As we say in Nigeria, that’s not beans.
Real Sociedad (Spain)
If Arsenal were to be paired with Real Sociedad, a welcome party would be prepared for a son of the soil, Carlos Vela. Many Arsenal fans had a thing for the chipping expert and some believe that he would have gone on to have a prosperous career at the Emirates if he was given enough game time. After a successful loan spell that saw him score 12 goals, Vela was retained on a permanent basis and in his second season with the club, he scored 14 goals.
Real Sociedad’s successful campaign wasn’t only due to Carlos Vela’s brilliance. There was the goalkeeping heroics of Claudio Bravo, the directness of Antoine Griezmann, the consistency of Asier Illarramendi and the sheer class of Xabi Prieto.
I’ve just shared my opinions on Arsenal’s potential opponents and we will find out the exact team later in the day.
Here’s to a favorable draw.
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