In many ways, Arsène Wenger’s career will be remembered for the ‘what-if?’ moments as much as the never-ending supply of entertainment, quite literally from the sublime to the ridiculous; Arsenal‘s 1-0 win away to Real Madrid with a back four of Emmanuel Eboué, Kolo Touré, Philippe Senderos and Mathieu Flamini is just one example of both the former and the latter. What if he had gone to Bayern Munich in 1994, just months before he was sacked by Monaco, or the plethora of other footballing superpowers who have courted his services during his career? What if the title challenges in 1998-99, 2002-03, 2007-08 and beyond had not faltered? What if Roman Abramovich and the cult of the billionaire owner had never arrived in football?
That which will be left to hypotheticals more than anything else, however, is what might have been in Europe. Wenger has embarked on no fewer than 25 campaigns on the continent so far, but as he enters his 26th, he is yet to lift any silverware. Some of the chances at glory which he has missed will haunt both him and his fans for life.
The Annals of Arsenal’s Missed Opportunities in Europe: 1997-2000
Incredibly, when Wenger arrived in North London 21 years ago, he already had plenty of experience in European competitions, having gone on runs to the quarter-final of the old European Cup in 1988-89, the last 16 of the UEFA Cup in 1990-91, the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991-92, and the semi-final of the Champions League in 1993-94 with Monaco. Already, then, there were several “what if?” moments in the Frenchman’s history which can be discussed, but that is another story altogether.
His early campaigns with Arsenal were unspectacular. Exits at the first hurdle in the 1997-98 UEFA Cup and 1998-99 Champions League went largely unnoticed, and by the time of another group stage failure in the Champions League in 1999-00, it did not look like the ‘double’ winners of 1998 were going to make their mark outside of England any time soon.
Causes and Effects of Failure
Much of the disappointment in these first three efforts can be put down to the fact that in the 1990s, the gap between the strongest and weakest European sides was smaller than it is today. The comfortable victories for major clubs over minor which happen on a weekly basis today were slightly less frequent, and upsets were more common.
Despite their success in the 1994 Cup Winners’ Cup under George Graham, Arsenal did not carry the same reputation on the continent as they did back home, which meant that ‘smaller’ clubs in Europe were less likely to be intimidated by them. One separate factor which may have played a part in the 1997-98 UEFA Cup exit is that Wenger was later quoted as saying that only the Champions League interested him.
The reason for the exits of the next two seasons are more obvious. The cliché of the “Wembley effect”—which now affects Tottenham Hotspur—cast its spell on Arsenal.
The club decided that Highbury was too small a venue to host European matches, and instead played home games at the neutral venue of Wembley. Whilst the consistently high attendances increased ticket revenue, the team struggled to express themselves, whilst playing at the historic ground often inspired visiting sides to be at their very best. It is little coincidence that Arsenal’s fortunes improved the moment they went back to playing at Highbury; in fact, they went unbeaten in their next fourteen home matches in Europe.
That UEFA Cup defeat in 1997 allowed the Gunners to go on an historic run domestically, as they reached the semi-final of the League Cup and won both the league and FA Cup in May. The next season seemed to have a similar effect, as they went on a staggering run in both the league and cup in 1999, before falling agonisingly short of another domestic ‘double’ as Manchester United held their nerve to knock the North London side out of the semi-final of the FA Cup and win the league by one point as they went on to secure the ‘treble’.
The Champions League exit of 1999-00, however, gave birth to what was Wenger’s first true continental ‘what if?’ moment at Arsenal.
The 1999-00 UEFA Cup
The club eschewed Wembley for their home fixtures in Europe’s bridesmaid competition, and immediately things began to get better. Comfortable 6-3 aggregate wins over Nantes and Deportivo La Coruña in the last 32 and last 16 set up a quarter-final tie with a strong, if inconsistent, Werder Bremen side. Continuing on from their refreshingly easy victories in the last two rounds, Arsenal won 2-0 at Highbury and really turned on the style in the away leg, winning 4-2 as Ray Parlour scored a hat-trick.
Finally, Wenger and his men were flexing their muscles on the continent, if in a secondary competition. Tense home ties were replaced with night-time cruises to victory; impotence in front of goal was replaced with free-flowing, goal-laden displays; in short, failure was replaced by success.
In the semi-final, Arsenal came up against an RC Lens side which, though not necessarily Champions League material, had already won at Highbury last season. In this campaign, they had eliminated the likes of Atlético Madrid and scored 18 goals in eight matches en route to the last four. The French side presented a genuine challenge which could easily have followed the same storyline as the past two seasons.
In the first leg, at Highbury, Dennis Bergkamp eased any pressure by scoring in the first two minutes. After this, there were several chances to kill the game off, none of which were taken. In the second half, the home side continued to dominate and create chances, but could not extend their lead.
Fans today will be familiar with the script of Arsenal dominating games but failing to kill them off, only to concede late on, but despite having a couple of chances at the death Lens were not able to punish their opponents for their lack of cutting edge. Regardless of their hard-earned victory, the fact that they had not finished off the tie in the first 90 minutes was frustrating.
In the second leg, Thierry Henry finally extended his side’s lead in the tie just before half-time with a brilliant finish. Lens now needed three goals to progress, and they brought one back with just under twenty minutes to go. The Gunners held firm, however, and Kanu put the icing on the cake by scoring the winner in the 87th minute.
Arsenal’s first European final under Wenger was a disappointment to say the least. They faced Galatasaray, but the fans, seeking revenge for the murder of two Leeds United fans at the hands of the Turkish supporters in the semi-final, put in more of a shift than the players in the now infamous “Battle of Copenhagen”, and the match itself was an anti-climax in comparison.
The English side never really got going in a drab 0-0, failing to take advantage of the Turkish side’s talisman, Gheorge Hagi’s sending off. The game went to penalties and David Šuker’s and Patrick Vieira’s misses meant that Arsenal failed to claim their third piece of European silverware.
Causes and Effects of Failure
Perhaps the troubles in the build-up to the final did not help, but the players simply did not turn up, almost seeming intimidated by their opponents and their fanbase. One thing is for certain: there was an air of complacency about the performance. Particularly considering their impressive performances in the knockout rounds, Wenger’s side should have easily dealt with Galatasaray, and this was a real opportunity missed to end a poor domestic season on a high. Interestingly, this was Arsenal’s third penalty shootout defeat in a season which had a consistent theme of lack of mental strength.
Arsenal have won seven of their nine penalty shootouts since that day, but it would be a tad contrived to claim that the final had much of an effect on this. Certainly, though, this unexpected disappointment had an effect on the team mentally, as they failed to mount a meaningful title challenge and lost another final the following season. The team will have seen that defeat as a seemingly definite moment of glory taken away from them, and it may have set the precedent for their failures on the continent in the following years.
The next six seasons saw the club spurn several clear chances at winning Europe’s premier competition, the Champions League, which will be covered in the next parts of this series.
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