It’s Henry shrugging four and five Real Madrid defenders to score at the Bernabeu…Walcott blasting it past Neuer…van Persie squeezing it past Valdes at the near post…Ramsey’s stunner from distance against Galatasaray…Bellerin bursting forward against Bayern to feed Ozil…Arshavin sluicing through to score against Barca…that Rosický screamer…Podolski blasting it past Neuer…the list goes on and on—and those are just the tip of the iceberg. We’re back in the Champions League. Can you hear that siren-song? Can you feel it in your bones?
Okay, so our clash with PSV Eindhoven may not generate moments as iconic as those that come to mind when we think of nearly two decades in the Champions League. Part of makes those moments iconic is the opponent against whom they occur. While it’s true that our Dutch opponents can give as good as they get (as evinced by their showing against us in last seaon’s Europa League), it’s unliekly that a goal scored against them will join the annals of the aforementioned.
Should we defeat PSV—by no means a foregone conclusion—there may very will be a catharsis, an expunging of six years of wandering in the wilderness, including one season bereft of any European entanglements. We’re back, at long last, and we have a legitimate chance at advancing past the group stage thanks to a largely favourable draw that pits us against PSV Eindhoven, Sevilla, and RC Lens. Sevilla are one of the weakest of the pot-one sides, and we might even be the favourites to win the group.
First, though, are baby steps. We host PSV Eindhoven, and our record against them is a bit mixed. They denied us a chance at winning the Europa League group stage by winning 2-0 at home. That we went on to win the group is small consolation—but the larger point is that our lads had scant experience on the European stage, and it showed. That shortcoming might put us under the microscope all the more; only Zinchenko and Jesus have played Champions League football, and Jesus may not be available.
Arteta may take a page out of that baskeball movie Hoosiers, measuring this and that distance to assure his players that, yes, the dimensions of the pitch, the size of the goal and the penalty area, and so on are indeed the same as they’ve ever been. It’s entirely possible that the members of our young squad may find themselves a bit of their depth in their first Champions League match, even if it is “only” PSV.
We can’t count on the previous pedigree establshed under Arsène; there is no carry-over effect from 19 consecutive seasons in the Champions League. We’re starting fresh. We have to build a new pedigree, and that starts on Wednesday against PSV. It’s too early to declare definitively that we’re back where we belong—I’ve never liked that kind of vain mindset in the first place—but it feels good to have earned our way back among the elite.
Even if we still find ourselves on the outskirts against the likes of Man City, Real Madrid, or Bayern, we’ve at least punched our ticket and booked passage. Should we advance past the group stage, who knows what’s possible? We have a young, impudent squad. Its members may not be cynical enough to understand that we’re not supposed to contend for this particular trophy…but that’s some catch, that catch-22. Not knowing what you’re not supposed to do might just free you to accomplish that very same task.
Step one to achieving the impossible: defeat PSV. Let’s start there and take it one step at a time.