Arsenal's best hope of Champions League football is Europa League success


This May will mark the 25th anniversary of the night Alan Smith pounced onto a botched clearance to score the only goal of the game in Copenhagen as an understrength Arsenal heroically beat Parma in the Cup Winners’ Cup final in 1994.

A full quarter of a century will have passed without Arsenal lifting continental silverware before this season’s Europa League final takes place in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku.

Ten domestic trophies have been scattered across that broad swathe of time but for any supporter whose formative experiences watching Arsenal came during George Graham’s glory years from 1986-95, the hope of conquering Europe once again has a certain mythic quality to it. Memories of that proud night in Copenhagen still burn bright – and worse, in the intervening years Chelsea and Manchester United have each won three European trophies while Liverpool have won two. Arsenal have been deprived of that unique feeling for too long.

After losing in the Cup Winners’ Cup final in 1995 to Real Zaragoza (thanks to Nayim’s famous 120th minute lob of David Seaman from the halfway line), the UEFA Cup final in 2000 and then the Champions League final in 2006, Arsenal also have an unwanted hat trick to their name. European success was a quest that went unfulfilled under Arsene Wenger, culminating in that heart-wrenchingly disappointing defeat to Atletico Madrid in last season’s Europa League semifinals.

Thankfully, in Unai Emery, Arsenal have a new manager who knows a bit about winning in Europe. His three back-to-back Europa League triumphs with Sevilla, in 2014, 2015 and 2016, made his career and place him alongside Giovanni Trapattoni as the most successful manager in the history of the competition.

If you were being unkind you might suggest Arsenal have swapped one manager with a penchant for winning second-rate competitions — Wenger, with his record seven FA Cups — for another. And clearly the guiding principle of the club is to be back at the top level as soon as possible: competing for Premier League titles and returning to the time when reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League was an annual event. But if we are honest, and as the opening games of the season have demonstrated, Arsenal are some way off that standard at present.

Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham are so far beyond Arsenal’s level that, reluctantly, it should be conceded there is one top-four place to play for. It’s not out of the question that Emery could reach it, but it would require Manchester United’s plight to continue and for Chelsea to stop picking up points and improving under Maurizio Sarri.

A top-four finish cannot be the sole barometer of success as the competition is just too fierce. If Arsenal show appreciable signs of improvement, Emery could even have a successful season if Arsenal come a close sixth.

Unai Emery won three Europa League trophies back to back. Getty Images

Not that everyone would view it as such — that kind of nuance can be in short supply in modern football. Which is why winning a trophy, a European trophy, would add valuable legitimacy to Emery’s work this season, wherever Arsenal finish in the league. It would also provide supporters, starved of European success for a quarter of a century, with wonderful memories.

It would also have a third big benefit: even at this early stage, it is surely right to say that Arsenal’s easiest route into the Champions League this season is through winning the Europa League. It requires you to perform over 15 games instead of 38 — only a handful of which will be against genuinely strong opposition. Three or four good performances in the knockout stages could be all that is needed … compared to finishing ahead of United and Chelsea over the course of a whole Premier League season.

In terms of balancing domestic and European demands, Wenger actually managed it very artfully last season. The standard of the groups, to be drawn on Friday, is so miserably poor that fielding reserves and youth team players is essentially mandatory. This should be the arena for players like Eddie Nketiah and Emile Rowe-Smith to continue their development while those short of game time, like Danny Welbeck and Mohamed Elneny, take the opportunity to sharpen up. Then, as the standard of opponent grows more daunting in the knockouts, more and more senior players are added to the equation.

It’s not the kind of season which Arsenal necessarily want to be charting; the club and their new manager are aiming to explore grander horizons. But the Europa League offers a very useful shortcut to the Champions League and, as Emery could remind Arsenal supporters waiting 25 years to feel that feeling again, winning a European trophy has a special value in of itself. Thursday nights have never seemed so appealing.

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