Take some time and think hard: Is there any team that has been quite so unlucky as often as Arsenal have over the last decade or so? Certainly no other big club has suffered so many inexplicable early-season slumps, so many bad bounces and bobbles, goalkeeper blunders, ruinously wrong calls, freak occurrences, season-squandering injuries, apparent acts of God or other footballing misfortunes.
Take the 2005-06 UEFA Champions League final, the Gunners’ modern high-water mark in continental play, when Jens Lehmann became the first player in the history of European cup finals to get sent off in just the 18th minute. Arsenal managed to snag a lead regardless, only for their short-staffed fatigue to catch up to them with two late goals that handed Barcelona the big cup.
Or take the miscommunication between Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny that gifted Obafemi Martins the winner in the 2010-11 League Cup final. Or take any of the scads of other examples, like Robin van Persie’s incomprehensible sending off against Barca in the Champions League knockout stages in 2011.
But even that impressive resume of rotten fortune couldn’t have foretold the possible scenario facing Arsenal in the Champions League against Napoli (live, FOX Sports 1, Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET). If they lose by three goals or more when they travel to Napoli and if Borussia Dortmund beats winless and drawless Olympique Marseille away, Arsenal would be knocked out in spite of accumulating a whopping 12 points and currently sitting in first place in Group F. That wouldn’t just be bad luck; that would be totally unprecedented in its utter weirdness and improbability.
The Champions League format was changed to put two teams through to the next round from the group stage ahead of the 1999-2000 season, rather than one. Since then, eighteen group stages have been played — from 1999-00 through 2002-03, there were two group stages — and in that time, only eight teams have failed to advance with 10 points. None ever got 11 without moving on. And certainly nobody has ever won a dozen points without finishing among the top-two of the group.
Yet Arsenal could do it. Arsenal could win four games of six without securing a place among the top-half of the group and advancing, thanks in large part to Marseille’s miserable campaign. Going into the final day, Napoli and Dortmund trail the Gunners by three points, with nine apiece.
This is supposed to be Arsenal’s breakout season. After years of underachievement, as the club bled talent and only ever seemed to replace it with second-rate foreigners and youngsters, as the trophy drought ran up to eight years and counting, now is the Gunners’ time. They have raced out to a five-point lead in the Premier League through 15 rounds, spilling points just four times. They did so most recently at home to Everton on Sunday, when Gerard Deulofeu equalized stupendously in the 84th minute — call it bad luck, if you must.
Their domestic rivals have trailed far behind. Manchester City made a slow start. Liverpool and Chelsea are prone to inconsistency. And Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United are nowhere to be found, mired in non-scoring and management crises, respectively. Even their continental campaign was going swimmingly for Arsenal. In spite of being drawn into one of the deathliest of groups, they won two, lost at home to defending vice-champions Dortmund, and won two more.
Still it might not be enough. With the demons seemingly excised, Arsenal’s haunted past — did they build their gleaming Emirates Stadium soccer temple on an ancient burial ground, perhaps? — might exact its terrible wrath yet again with a big loss.
That we’re even discussing the possibility is a testament to the feasibility that this could happen. Arsenal may have the stingiest defense in England as well as in Europe — along with a few other Champions League teams — but they have conceded three goals once before this season, in their 3-1 league opener loss to Aston Villa.
In spite of losing Edinson Cavani to Paris Saint-Germain over the summer, the Neapolitans are once again among the most potent teams in Italy, sitting in third place in Serie A, even if they have won just one of their last four. Led by tactically savvy manager Rafa Benitez and his vast experience in the Champions League, though, they boast a powerful mix between mobile attackers and organizational soundness. Powerful enough certainly to beat Arsenal.
Still, Arsenal and its long-suffering fans can take solace in knowing that the last time around, at the Emirates, their red-and-whites won 2-0 on the strength of early Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud goals.
So the chance of Arsenal somehow being left out in this three-team game of musical chairs is remote. But then again, fate seems to enjoy being unkind to the Gunners.