The 2017/18 season will be one of a new experience for current Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger; as his side will not compete in the UEFA Champions League (or for people of a certain vintage, the European Cup) for the first time since 1997/98. Instead they will find themselves in the Europa League. Rather than licking their wounds over qualifying for UEFA’s secondary competition, it’s one that Arsene Wenger and Arsenal really should relish to compete in and attempt to win.
Arsenal have won two European trophies in their history - the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup won in 1970 against Belgian club Anderlecht, (though it's an achievement not recognised by UEFA, it's still recognised by FIFA) and the now-defunct European Cup Winners' Cup, won in 1994 against Italian side Parma who at the time boasted high-calibre players such as Sweden’s Tomas Brolin and Colombian Faustino Asprilla (both of whom went onto to ply their trade in the English Premier League in the 1990s at Kevin Keegan's Newcastle and Leeds United respectively).
Not for the want of trying, Arsenal have tried to add to their European trophy haul since their last night of European glory in the Danish capital of Copenhagen, coming close with European final losses against Real Zaragoza in 1995, Galatasaray in 2000 and Barcelona in 2006. The Europa League doesn’t only give Arsenal a chance to win another major trophy and earn a direct route back into the UEFA Champions League in 2018/19 should they again fail to finish inside the top four of the Premier League; it also presents the club with the opportunity to win their first European trophy for just short of a quarter of a century (can you remember whether reigning European Champions Chelsea in 2012/13 or Manchester United last season looked down on the Europa League after winning it? Or even Liverpool after losing in the 2015/16 final?)
For Arsene Wenger, it also presents him with a major opportunity to finally win a UEFA trophy. For all of his successes on the domestic level for Arsenal and Monaco, the fact of the matter is that he is still yet to win a European trophy. His place as Arsenal’s most successful manager is already assured but his critics (and he currently has plenty of them, both within London N5 and elsewhere), will point out that two of his predecessors - the late Bertie Mee (as seen from the video of the second leg of the 1970 Fairs Cup Final below) and George Graham - both won the club European silverware.
The debate on whether Wenger is one of football's managerial greats is an interesting one. As his record currently stands, it’s very difficult to put him on a par among the like of Sir Alex Ferguson, Giovanni Trapattoni, Bob Paisley and Jose Mourinho when Wenger can’t claim to have successfully defended a league title or win at least one European Cup/Champions League. That’s not to say every European Cup winning manager is among the greats. Roberto Di Matteo won the trophy as Chelsea manager in 2012, but his achievements as a manager are limited as brief spells at Schalke 04 in Germany and more recently at newly relegated Aston Villa, in 2016 will testify.
Should Arsenal take the Europa League seriously, it would allow the club to finally become competitive in Europe - albeit against teams who are likely to be a level or two lower than them. A certain Jose Mourinho might point out that FC Porto’s UEFA Cup success in 2002/03 partially laid the foundations for their UEFA Champions League success the following season. Going even further back into history, Liverpool too won the UEFA Cup in 1973 and 1976, in the build up to just falling short of the treble with a loss to Man United in the FA Cup Final, but retaining the league title as well as claiming the first of their five European Cups at the Olympic Stadium in Rome in May 1977.
A strong Europa League campaign could in some part allow Arsenal to briefly forget about several Champions League humiliations that they have experienced since 1998/99, despite enjoying the most consistent record of qualification for the competition this side of the millennium. It's difficult to objectively to see any pride in consistently losing Round of 16 ties over seven successive seasons, particularly the 10-2 on aggregate loss to Bayern Munich which occurred earlier this year. When you consider that Arsenal have won just two European competitions since their inception in the 1950s, at the risk of stating the obvious, a successful Europa League campaign will add to their European trophy haul and allow them to close the gap on other English club rivals whose records on winning European trophies look more impressive. Arsenal's two European trophies are pale in comparison to Liverpool's eight and Man United's five. Even with regard to their London rivals, Chelsea have four to their name, plus a European Super Cup and even Spurs have three. That's a record that Arsenal would surely want rectified over the next decade, if they wish to be considered a club with ambition.
Even if Arsenal were to win the Europa League next season it won’t automatically mean this current Arsenal side live among the greats of English football history, but it would slightly go some way to prove that this current squad are capable of doing more than just winning the FA Cup and or bagging the fabled 'fourth-place trophy' with regard to Champions League qualification. Whether Wenger takes the competition seriously is another matter, but if his Arsenal side are to progress there can be no benefit in treating the Europa Cup on a par with the level of prioritization he usually gives to the League Cup.
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*Published July 18th 2017