Despite a strong effort in perhaps the hardest group, defeat at SSC Napoli on matchday six has Arsenal FC fans thinking what might have been as they await FC Bayern München.
For the second straight season, defeat on matchday six cost Arsenal FC top spot – and once again FC Bayern München await them in the round of 16, this time as champions. It is a daunting prospect which takes the gloss off an impressive campaign in arguably the toughest section, as Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal and SSC Napoli all finished on 12 points. For the 14th successive year Arsenal qualified for the knockout phase and showed true character in winning away to 2012/13 finalists Dortmund. You cannot help wondering, though, what might have been – a point at Napoli on matchday six would have clinched first place and a less demanding UEFA Champions League draw.
Story so far
The strength of Arsenal's squad was in question when the group stage draw was made and fans' fears were heightened when Arsenal learned their Group F fate. However, following the signing of Mesut Özil, those concerns were allayed by victory at Olympique de Marseille and a comfortable success against Napoli, where the German international treated the home crowd to a virtuoso display and his first goal for the north London club.
Back-to-back matches against Dortmund would define Arsenal's campaign: defeat at home then revenge away as Aaron Ramsey's strike capped a resilient backs-to-the-wall effort in Germany. In another year Arsenal might have come first after beating Marseille to collect their 12th point – as it was, losing in Naples meant that tally only just guaranteed a ticket to the last 16.
Arsène Wenger declared his side "naive" after Dortmund's late winner on the break on matchday three. That dropped point ultimately cost Arsenal pole position, yet most important was how they reacted to the setback to keep on course for a spot in the last 16. Two weeks later Wenger was hailing "a mature performance" after Ramsey's 62nd-minute strike clinched a 1-0 triumph in Dortmund.
Key player: Olivier Giroud
With the Gunners already short on firepower, injuries to Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski further increased Arsenal's reliance on Olivier Giroud in attack. The French international thrived on the responsibility, working tirelessly as the link man, holding up the ball and bringing Arsenal's wealth of midfield talent into play – not to mention scoring twice and setting up Ramsey's winner in Dortmund.
Rising star: Aaron Ramsey
No one epitomised Arsenal's unexpected resurgence at the beginning of the season more than Wales's Ramsey, who finally banished the memory of the broken leg he sustained in 2010 with a series of commanding performances that energised the Gunners' campaign. A box-to-box midfielder, the 22-year-old's sudden eye for goal impressed most of all – 13 in total by the end of the group stage, including three in the play-off against Fenerbahçe SK and two in Group F, the winners at Marseille and Dortmund.
After a difficult summer in the transfer market the acquisition of Özil for a club record €50m as the deadline approached was a tangible measure of Arsenal's ambition, raising expectations and galvanising the squad. A match-winning turn in the victory against Napoli highlighted Özil's ability, but just as vital was the confidence his arrival instilled in the team. "[He is] everything you want from a fantastic player – teamwork, skill, passing, shooting – so just sit there and enjoy it," Wenger said.
"It is something I miss. I will try to fight very hard to fill my CV with that. But you play against Barcelona, Bayern, Real Madrid – every year they are there with a chance. Every year you always think: 'Let's do it', and one year it will go for you. Let's hope it will be this year."
Wenger contemplates lifting the trophy for the first time at the end of Arsenal's 16th consecutive UEFA Champions League campaign.
Next challenge: FC Bayern München
(Home: 19 February, away: 11 March)
History repeats itself for the Gunners, who faced the reigning champions at this stage last season, falling to an away goals defeat despite a 2-0 success in Germany. What may seem a good omen for Bayern is anything but for Wenger's men, who have paid the highest of prices for failing to top their section – being drawn against a side running away with the Bundesliga after winning Group D. There is hope for Arsenal, as witnessed by Manchester City FC's 3-2 matchday six triumph in Munich and the history books suggest things could go either way – Bayern winning three and Arsenal two of the clubs' six encounters.