ALERT! Arsenal have finished top of their Champions League group. This is not a drill. Despite two lackluster performances against Paris Saint-Germain and fears of another year coming in second only to go out in the knockout rounds, the Gunners caught a break. PSG drew against lowly Ludogorets and Arsenal took top spot. Now, with this unexpected piece of good fortune, it's time to take advantage and press forward in Europe.
Arsenal have never won Champions League. They haven't been in the final since the heartbreaking loss to Barcelona in 2006. They haven't even made the semis since 2009. Aiming even lower, the Gunners haven't finished on top of their group since 2011/12. Worst of all, they haven't made it past the knockout rounds since the 2009/10 season. Champions League success isn't in their DNA. But that could change this year.
For the last half decade they haven't been able to handle business in the group stage, ended up in second place, and their European hopes have been dashed early. Now, they've been handed a freebie, and they're in fantastic position to change the narrative.
Breaking this streak of Champions League knockout round exits would be huge for Arsenal. They've stagnated in both the league and in Europe in recent years, and success in Europe would be a massive sign of the club's progression. Simply making it past the round of 16 would be a triumph, and anything after that a bonus. Arsenal don't have to win Champions League this year to be successful, but going out in the first knockout round would absolutely feel like a failure, and that was the case before they were gifted first place in their group.
A big part of success in Champions League is chance. At every stage, it's all about the competition you face, and when you face them. Leicester City can't seem to buy a point in the Premier League, but they're undefeated in Champions League and through to the knockout rounds after topping their group, largely because of the luck of the draw. For so many years, Arsenal have been on the opposite side of that coin, and now they've been handed a break with PSG's failure.
Top spot in the Champions League group stage isn't just a cool thing to brag about. It means not facing anyone else who's finished atop their group. That's a huge advantage, especially since this year, like most years, that list has some pretty serious names on it. Finishing top means Arsenal will definitely avoid two of Europe's very best in Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, plus their bogey team from a couple years ago, Monaco. The biggest worry for them is Bayern Munich (again), who finished second in their gorup behind Atletico and the possibility of Borussia Dortmund or Real Madrid, who battle each other on Wednesday for Group F supremacy. Juventus could end up second place and a potential opponents too.
That puts the focus on the draw, and the draw can be fickle. Arsenal could still get stuck with one of Europe's biggest heavyweights. But that's the game. The only thing anyone can do is to put themselves in position to be successful, and hope for the best possible outcome. This time, they got an early Christmas gift from PSG and they're in first place, against all odds. Now, barring the worst, they're in fantastic position to break the unwanted streak of knockout round losses with a favorable opponent.
Sometimes you do everything right and the chips just don't fall your way. Sometimes, you get handed a golden opportunity out of nowhere. For many years, Arsenal got the short end of the stick. This year is different. And now, it's time to take advantage of it.