Arsenal FC qualified with a game to spare, but a lengthy injury list and some indifferent displays ensured that their safe passage from Group D was far from pain free.
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On the face of it, job done. Arsenal FC qualified with a game to spare from Group D, winning four and losing just once in the process. Ceding top spot to Borussia Dortmund on goal difference, though, felt like a missed opportunity and their safe passage was far from pain free.
Story so far
Starting with a nervy play-off victory against Beşiktaş JK, Arsenal ran the full gamut of emotions. From Danny Welbeck's joy after scoring a hat-trick against Galatasaray AŞ, to Arsène Wenger's fury at watching his side throw away a three-goal lead at home to RSC Anderlecht, Arsenal swung from high to low then straight back up again. To their credit, whenever Arsenal were dealt a blow they hit back – this despite a punishing run of injuries.
A disappointing opening 2-0 loss in Dortmund was followed by a convincing 4-1 win against Galatasaray. A listless display away to Anderlecht was turned on its head at the death, three points gained thanks to two dramatic late goals, and victory against Dortmund on matchday five went some way to making amends for the hammer blow of that 3-3 draw with Anderlecht three weeks earlier. Their campaign was then sealed with a flourish in Istanbul. Come the knockout rounds, the margin for error will not be so generous.
Given Arsenal's record of going out in the last 16 in each of the past four seasons, much was made of the need to win the group to avoid the likes of FC Bayern München in the first knockout round. That hope effectively ended on matchday four at home to Anderlecht when Aleksandar Mitrović headed in in the final minute to complete a remarkable comeback and capture an unlikely point for the Belgian team. "We should have known better than anyone that the game is never done until the final whistle," midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain said. "Hopefully this is a massive lesson learned."
Key Player: Alexis Sánchez
The Chile forward's importance this term cannot be understated. A €44m signing from FC Barcelona in July, Sánchez's value was evident when his first goal for the club against Beşiktaş guaranteed Arsenal a 17th straight group stage appearance. He scored three more in Group D – and 14 in all competitions by Christmas. The 26-year-old's technique, shot and eye for a pass are everything expected of a player of his pedigree; his formidable work rate and drive make him a cut above.
Rising Star: Calum Chambers
The 19-year-old was landed from Southampton FC in the summer with an eye to the future, but his value to Arsenal has been very much in the present as Wenger battles to patch together a defence depleted by injuries. Used both in his preferred right-back role and as part of a central pair, Chambers has shown versatility as well as ability. Though still learning the game, his self-assurance is remarkable and he began the campaign so strongly that on 3 September he made his senior England debut.
Arsenal are nothing if not consistent. This is the 15th season in succession that Wenger's side have reached the last 16, and in the words of the man himself: "I believe that is an achievement." Since the UEFA Champions League expanded to 32 teams in 1999/2000, only Real Madrid CF have got to the last 16 on each occasion. That first term in the larger format was the one time Arsenal missed out – and then only by a single point.
"You cannot always look for excuses. When we are down, we are down. When you have a disappointment you have to respond in a strong way – that's what competition is about."
Wenger may have been speaking ahead of the matchday six meeting with Galatasaray, but those sentiments were a reflection of more than one match during the group stage.
Next Challenge: AS Monaco FC
(Home: 25 February, away: 17 March)
After drawing Bayern in the round of 16 in the last two years, Arsenal will be grateful to have been paired with AS Monaco FC and evaded the competition's big hitters. Wenger's old club topped Group C despite scoring just four goals, a welcome statistic for Arsenal fans whose side conceded eight times in the group stage – second only to FC Schalke 04 of the qualified teams. Wenger led Monaco to the French title in 1987/88 during his seven years in the principality; success for Arsenal now will be measured in making the quarter-finals, as it is five seasons since the Gunners last graced that stage.