Arsenal ready to prove that they are Champions League contenders

Arsenal and the UEFA Champions League is a story that tends not to have a happy ending. The 13-time English champions are arguably the biggest club never to have won Europe’s premier competition and their only hallmark in the Champions League is under-achievement.

The last time the Gunners won a knock-out tie in the competition, they did so courtesy of a Nicklas Bendtner hat-trick (remember him?) when a 5-0 round-of-16 second-leg victory over Porto in March 2010 cancelled out a 2-1 first-leg defeat to take Arsene Wenger’s team into the quarterfinals and a 6-3 aggregate loss to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Since then, it has been nothing other than a tale of abject failure in the Champions League for London’s biggest club when they have managed to qualify for the competition. Premier League rivals Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City have all reached the final during that time. Liverpool, City and Chelsea (twice) managed to win it, but Arsenal can only point to a run of eight successive eliminations at the round-of-16.

When Mikel Arteta’s team face Porto on Tuesday night — in their attempt to overturn a one-goal deficit from a first-leg defeat just as they did in 2010 — they will go into the game having not won a home knockout fixture in the Champions League since 2012. But back then, a 3-0 victory at the Emirates against AC Milan was not enough to overturn a 4-0 first-leg loss in the San Siro.

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Arteta has transformed Arsenal since taking charge of the team in Dec. 2019. He has made them serious contenders for the Premier League title again and restored the club to the Champions League after a six-season absence, but Tuesday’s Porto clash offers a reminder of how far Arteta and the club still have to travel in club football’s biggest competition before they can truly count themselves to be back among the elite.

The test of Arsenal’s resolve in the Premier League is still to come this season, but Arteta’s side are top of the table, a point clear of Liverpool, and they will establish themselves as favourites to finish top and end a 20-year title drought if they beat City at the Etihad on March 31.

So far this season, Arsenal have responded to every challenge they have been faced with in the Premier League. And aside from the first-leg defeat against Porto in Estádio do Dragão last month, they have lived up to expectations in the Champions League, topping Group B with a healthy four-point margin.

But now is the time for Arsenal to show they have overcome the frailties that have damaged them in the past, both domestically and in Europe. It’s time for Arteta and his players to hold their nerve when the pressure is truly on — something they have been unable to do in the last two seasons when chasing the title in 2023 and attempting to secure Champions League qualification in 2022. Last season, when faced with a difficult opponent in Sporting CP in the Europa League, Arsenal couldn’t find a way to win, losing 5-3 on penalties at the Emirates after two round-of-16 draws against the Portuguese team.

Porto are a team capable of inflicting more Champions League pain on Arsenal. They have lost just once in their last 15 games, have a respected coach in Sérgio Conceição and, in 41-year-old defender Pepê, possess experience and knowledge in the competition that can go a long way to ensuring a frustrating night for Arteta’s side.

Although Porto have great Champions League pedigree, they have not eliminated an English club in the competition since Jose Mourinho’s side knocked out United in 2003-2004, so Arsenal should progress if they perform as they have done in the Premier League this season.

The ghosts of their Champions League history have still to be exorcised, but this season offers Arsenal an incredible opportunity to do that emphatically.

With nearby Wembley Stadium hosting the final on June 1, the prospect of winning the Champions League in their home city is an obvious motivation, but the field of competitors should also give Arsenal optimism of winning their first European Cup.

Bayern Munich, and Paris Saint-Germain, who have already qualified for the quarterfinals, are weaker than in previous seasons, with the same applying to Barcelona, Napoli, Atletico Madrid and Inter Milan. As for the winners of the Borussia DortmundPSV Eindhoven tie, they will be the side that everybody wants to be paired with in Friday’s quarterfinal draw.

That leaves City, the reigning European champions and favourites to win it again this season, but Arsenal finally ended their nine-game losing streak against Guardiola’s team by beating them at the Emirates in the Premier League this season, so they now know the feeling of success against the dominant force in the game.

If Arsenal can navigate their way past the obstacles that Porto will put in their way, they should fear no remaining team in the Champions League.

But they have to get past Porto first and that could be the biggest challenge of them all. Tension, bad history and a tendency to falter in the Champions League continue to haunt Arsenal, which is why overcoming Porto will mean more than simply reaching the quarterfinals.