Eighty-three days ago, at around 10.15pm in Paris, Arsenal FC were a quarter of an hour away from becoming European champions for the first time. Of course, it was not to be. If they wish to go one better in this season's UEFA Champions League they must negotiate 15 matches, starting with Tuesday's third qualifying round first-leg trip to NK Dinamo Zagreb.
Since the 2-1 loss to FC Barcelona in the 2005/06 final, there have been the usual coming and goings, and several big names will be missing. Two, Sol Campbell and Robert Pirès, have left the club, but although they started in Paris and indeed Campbell scored, their places in the lineup were no longer assured. Dennis Bergkamp, an unused substitute against Barça, has retired and also absent will be Jens Lehmann due to the suspension garnered by his red card. Thierry Henry, considered too fatigued after his FIFA World Cup exertions, will sit out the Dinamo game along with the injured Fredrik Ljungberg, Gaël Clichy, Philippe Senderos, Abou Diaby and the unsettled Ashley Cole.
Arsenal's major summer signing is Czech international Tomáš Rosický from BV Borussia Dortmund, and his versatility has excited Arsène Wenger. "He can play left or centre, in a three, right, or as a second striker," the manager said. "He's very quick. I think more than any individual you bring in, you look at the style of play and he looks to fit into our style."
Having striven so long for, and so consistently fallen short of, the European title, last term's near-miss was a bitter blow for Arsenal. The north Londoners' desperation to make amends and bring the trophy to their new 60,000-capacity stadium is clear. The precedents are not so promising though - since AC Milan followed their 1992/93 defeat with 1993/94 success, no UEFA Champions League runner-up has claimed the crown in the next campaign, although FC Bayern München triumphed in 2000/01 having lost in even more heartbreaking circumstances than Arsenal two years before. Only twice in the modern era have the beaten finalists then played in the third qualifing round, with Valencia CF winning through to play Bayern in 2001 and four seasons later AS Monaco FC going as far as the last 16.
Perhaps the only antecedents Arsenal will wish to turn to are the stylish but determined displays that saw them through to the 2005/06 final in brilliant fashion. Henry, who had looked set to leave last May but changed his mind after the events in Paris, warned: "I believe this season has created a special bond inside the team and there is much more to come."
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