Arsenal Ensures Difficult Round of 16 Foe With Loss
Going into the final match day of the UEFA Champions League group stage, Premier League leaders Arsenal needed merely a draw to clinch the top spot and secure a more favorable round of 16 matchup. Instead, the Gunners’ lackluster performance against Napoli led to a 2-0 loss and dropped them into second place in Group F, while Borussia Dortmund finished atop the group.
With the second place finish, Arsenal must now await to see which of the seven group winners could potentially be a knockout stage opponent. Since Chelsea and Manchester United finished atop their respective groups and you can’t face a club from the same country in the first knockout round, that eliminates two of the seven group winners. Unfortunately, the five left aren’t any easier.
The first potential opponent for the Gunners is current Champions League titleholders Bayern Munich. After strolling through the group, aside from a slip-up in the final match against Manchester City, the Bavarian giants look poised to make another run to the Champions League final. If the Gunners are drawn against the German giants, it would be a rematch of last season’s round of 16 in which Bayern Munich advanced on the away goals rule, albeit the 3-3 final goal differential.
Another opponent Arsenal could face is reigning Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain. PSG clinched its spot in the round of 16 after five matches and finished atop the group even with a final match day loss to Benfica. Led by the monstrous Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Parisian giants would be the easiest (I say that lightly) matchup for the Gunners. Aside from Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani up top, the Red and Blue have an exploitable back line and goalkeeper that could prove to be the difference in who advances into the quarterfinals.
La Liga titleholder, Barcelona, is another possible opponent for the Gunners in the round of 16. Like PSG, Barcelona clinched a spot in the knockout stage after the fifth match but locked up the top of the group after a very convincing 6-1 win over Celtic on the final match day. A pairing with the Blaugrana would signal a rematch of the 2010-11 Champions League round of 16 matchup that saw the Spanish giants advance 4-3 on goal differential after the clubs split home wins in the two legs.
Real Madrid represent the second Spanish club the North Londoners could face in February. Five wins and one draw in the group stage, Los Merengues weren’t challenged much by their Group B opponents, as evidenced by the +15 goal differential. Led by current Champions League leading scorer (9) Cristiano Ronaldo and assist leader (5) Ángel Di María, a matchup against Real Madrid would be a rematch of the 2005-06 Champions League round of 16 that saw Arsenal advance 1-0 on goal differential en route to the Gunners’ first and only Champions League Final appearance. It would also be the first time former Tottenham star Gareth Bale had the chance to face the club he knows all too well.
The final opponent that could await the Gunners is current Copa Del Rey champion Atlético Madrid. Like their fellow Madrid counterparts, the Red and Whites cruised through the group stage with five wins and one draw finishing with a commanding +12 goal differential. Led by one of the hottest strikers in the world, Diego Costa, and the promising Thibaut Courtois between the sticks, Atlético Madrid has emerged as one of the surprising clubs in both Champions League play and league play in La Liga. The two clubs haven’t met in a competition before, so history could be made when the draw is finished next week.
Arsenal will be looking to make its first Champions League quarterfinals since the 2009-10 campaign where Barcelona thumped the Gunners 6-3 over two legs. With the potential opponents laid out in front of them, the North Londoners are going to have their hands full no matter who they’re drawn against.