Ben Gray: Arsenal must overcome Porto on Tuesday because this season’s Champions League presents a golden opportunity

Fair to say, Arsenal don’t exactly love the Champions League round of 16 or, as it might as well be known in N5, the final round.

This is of course the Gunners’ first campaign back in Europe’s premier club competition after six years away, but is their continental escapade set to end at the exact same juncture?

Arsenal have lost each of their last seven Champions League last 16 ties, falling at the very same hurdle every year between 2011 and 2017, thrice dumped out by Bayern Munich, twice at the hands of Barcelona, whilst AC Milan and Monaco were their other two adversaries.

It was not lost on people back when this season’s draw was made on 18 December that the last team the Gunners defeated in this round were Porto, beaten 2-1 in Northern Portugal back in 2010, before a thumping 5-0 victory back at home, with Nicklas Bendtner the scorer of a hat-trick all those years ago.

Well, almost a decade and a half on, supporters are hoping to expirence a sense of déjà vu come Tuesday night.

Despite being free-scoring in the Premier League, winning eight matches on the spin, netting 33 times during this period, Arsenal seemingly left their shooting boots in baggage reclaim at Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport.

To say the first leg of this tie was not a classic would be a contender for understatement of the year, with Mikel Arteta’s team failing to have a shot on target all night, mustering a miserly xG of just 0.4, their joint-lowest in any match all season.

Up the other end, aside from a golden double-chance squandered by Galeno, Porto offered very little either, with referee Serdar Gozubuyuk awarding 36 fouls, seemingly concerned a game of football would break out.

The ball was in play for a mere 50 minutes and two seconds during the 97 minutes of ‘action’ we were treated to.

So, just as a 0-0 felt inevitable, Galeno thwacked one into the top corner from miles out, sparking wild celebrations at Estadio do Dragao, as Sergio Conceicao’s side stole an unlikely victory.

You can bet your bottom dollar, Porto will bring with them the exact same antics to North London; time wasting, falling over theatrically at every corner and rolling around injured to disrupt any semblance of momentum.

The hope from Arsenal’s perspective is that French referee Clement Turpin won’t fall for these antics in the way that his Dutch counterpart did three weeks ago, but Arteta’s side also have to be smarter, learning from the nativity and cautiousness on display in Portugal.

The clarity of what is now required will help for sure.

In Premier League games, Arsenal kick off knowing they must win at all costs, whereas they seemingly approached the first leg with the attitude that a 0-0 isn’t a bad result, almost getting away with it.

Starting Tuesday’s return tie knowing they must not only win, but by two clear goals, will bring simplicity to the task at hand.

To provide further optimism, Porto have never won in England, losing each of their last three visits.

Their overall record stands at zero victories, three draws and 19 defeats, hammered 5-0 and 4-0 during their two previous outings at the Emirates.

The Gunners’ three Champions League home games this season have seen them prevail 4-0, 2-0 and 6-0, needing to make it four successive home victories in this competition for the first time since February 2011.

So why is it so important that Arsenal get through this tie?

Well, for starters, they need to banish the ghost of round of 16 past, overcoming that aforementioned hoodoo, but also Mikel Arteta is yet to prove himself as a manager in UEFA competition.

In the Europa League, Arteta did lead his team to the semi-finals in 2021, ousted by Unai Emery’s Villarreal, because of course, but this was all played-behind-closed-doors in a surreal, unreplicable environment.

Aside from that, the Gunners haven’t won a European knockout tie since Emery was in charge, falling in the first knockout round against Olympiacos on away goals in 2020, as well as at the hands of Sporting CP on penalties almost exactly 12 months ago.

Under Arteta’s guidance, this team has improved exponentially in Premier League terms.

Last season was their first top four finish for seven years, their points tally of 84 was the club’s best since the Invincibles, while they ended up within five points of the champions for the first time since 2007/08.

This team are now competitive domestically, sat top of the Premier League right this very moment, so can they now be competitive on the continent again? It’s been a while!

Well, this year might be the perfect time to start, with the Champions League field not appearing as formidable as usual, Manchester City aside.

Pep Guardiola’s team are rightly overwhelming favourites to retain the trophy on 1 June, they will take some stopping, but, outwith an all-English affair, Arsenal should fear no one.

Looking at the teams already through, Bayern Munich are more vulnerable than they’ve been for over a decade, a whopping ten points below Bundesliga-leaders Bayer Leverkusen.

Real Madrid are without key personnel at the back, namely Thibaut Courtois, David Alaba and Eder Militao, so, while they are still strong, los Blancos will only get better when Kylian Mbappe arrives in the summer.

Speaking of Mbappe, his current team PSG continue to be inconsistent and won’t win it because... well, as Giorgio Chiellini infamously said about another club: c’est l’histoire de Paris Saint-Germain

Barcelona/Napoli and PSV/Borussia Dortmund will advance this week, but aren’t likely winners either, while Internazionale, should they dump out Atlético, do look like potential champions in the making.

Nevertheless, these are the calibre of teams Arsenal want to be competing with, not just this season but for years to come, making victory over Porto on Tuesday a must, wanting to be apart of Friday morning’s draw.

Ben Gray

Ben Gray

Arsenal fan – follow them over land and sea (and Leicester); sofa Celtic supporter; a bit of a football '"encyclopedia".