Nick Ames reports on Arsenal’s upcoming match against Porto, as they aim to finally overcome their past struggles in the Champions League round of 16. Arsenal will take on Porto with hopes of breaking their predecessors’ curse in the last-16 stage of the Champions League. Nick Ames provides insight on Arsenal’s upcoming game, as they strive to conquer their previous challenges in this round.

Estimated read time 5 min read

Arsenal is aware that by leaving London’s dreary weather for the vibrant blue skies of northern Portugal, they will encounter a significantly different challenge. After two seasons without European competition, the club has finally made it back to the Champions League last 16, making it a humbling experience to face Porto. Arsenal has not advanced past this stage since 2010, making it a crucial milestone in Mikel Arteta’s journey to restore the team’s former glory.

Looking at it from a different angle, this presents a great opportunity. The Estádio do Dragão is not a venue to be taken lightly, as Arsenal has previously experienced with a 2-1 loss and a hat-trick from Nicklas Bendtner in the second leg securing them a spot in the quarter-finals 14 years ago. However, the reality is that they could have faced tougher opponents than an struggling Porto team who are currently seven points behind second place in the Primeira Liga. This is a chance for Arsenal to overcome their past challenges and face a field that, compared to other competitions, seems relatively weak.

Arteta is taking things one step at a time and doesn’t want his players to dwell too much on the poor performance of their predecessors in the 2010s. In seven consecutive campaigns, the team fell at this hurdle and the most recent defeat in 2017 against Bayern Munich was particularly painful. The two-legged match, which ended in a 10-2 aggregate loss, highlighted the lack of discipline and determination that had become all too common during Arsène Wenger’s reign as manager. This was the third time in five seasons that Arsenal had been eliminated by Bayern, with other top teams such as Milan, Monaco, and Barcelona also inflicting heavy defeats and damaging the club’s reputation among the top teams.

The blunt truth was that Arsenal could not cope mentally or tactically back then. The dying moments of their first leg against Monaco in 2015 presented what came to be a defining sequence: brief promise when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain halved a two-goal deficit in added time, followed by head-banging disbelief when Yannick Carrasco was immediately given the freedom of the Emirates to score what would prove the tie’s defining goal. Arsenal were naive, quixotic, unserious and Europe’s powers had moved on without them.

Currently, none of those circumstances are relevant. This is in part due to Arteta’s efforts to prevent any significant mistakes in Group B. The team took Lens, Sevilla, and PSV Eindhoven seriously because not doing so would have caused trouble. Arteta has personal experience with the consequences of approaching the group stage with a lack of intensity. He was a player for five of Arsenal’s last-16 exits, and in only one of those instances did they top their group. Over the course of seven unfortunate years, they only managed to do so twice and faced defeat at the hands of strong opponents in the knockout rounds. The situation may have been different if they had faced Bayern, Borussia Dortmund, or either of the Madrid teams this month.

Mikel Arteta looks dejected after Arsenal’s defeat to Bayern Munich in 2013View image in fullscreen

What sets this situation apart? Since the middle of January, Arsenal has found a formidable rhythm that seemed just out of reach during their winning streak in the fall. They are scoring goals and hardly allowing any shots; Arteta has taught them when to increase the intensity and when to ease off, aided by the dominant presence of Declan Rice in midfield. It’s possible they lack a striker who could strike fear in the hearts of Europe’s top teams, and their limited squad depth may hinder their pursuit of trophies on multiple fronts. However, any criticism of their lack of experience at this level overlooks the fact that there are few teams better than them.

Compared to their dominant past, Bayern Munich’s current performance does not evoke as much fear. Paris Saint-Germain is focused on transitioning after Kylian Mbappé, and among the Spanish teams, only Real Madrid has maintained some of their former prestige. It’s possible that Inter Milan could also become a contender, but bookmakers are likely correct in ranking Arsenal as the third most likely to win. Many long-standing powerhouse teams are experiencing instability, and the Premier League’s dominance is creating uncertainty among its competitors. Out of the remaining 16 teams, only Manchester City clearly stands above Arteta’s team.

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Hypothesizing holds little significance, however, when conflicts begin. “If they are considered the top choice, then they must prove it on the field,” stated Diogo Costa, the goalkeeper for Porto, as he revealed his team has identified vulnerabilities in Arsenal. The strikers Evanilson and Galeno, who have a combined total of eight goals in the Champions League this season, have the ability to exploit these weaknesses.

A potential obstacle cannot be ignored at a stadium known for overwhelming the unprepared; nor can a final result after two matches be underestimated, reminiscent of the surprise wake-up call from Sporting in last year’s Europa League. Precaution will be emphasized, but Arsenal appears to be finally prepared to reclaim their spot among the top contenders.


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