Arsenal v PSG: Wenger urges Gunners to seize chance in wide open race
Arsene Wenger believes this will be the most open Champions League for years, as he plots Arsenal's route into the latter stages.
If Arsenal beat Paris Saint Germain tonight they win Group A and ensure an easier last 16 tie. That is the stage at which the Gunners have been eliminated in the last six years, their price for repeated group stage errors.
This year, the picture looks different. Arsenal have their future in their hands and should have first place secured tonight. There will be some strong second placers but the London side must aim for the quarters at least.
More importantly, the top end of the competition is less stratified than in recent years. The elite of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid look more reachable and beatable. There is not an obvious favourite already.
For the first time since Chelsea won it almost five years ago, the Champions League feels accessible to the English sides again. Wenger feels this too.
That is why he said at his press conference yesterday that this was "the most open Champions League in years", and that the old gap between the best of Europe and the best of England had narrowed.
Wenger pointed to the fact that Manchester City beat Barcelona so impressively earlier this month as proof.
"We have an opportunity to show it again against Paris Saint Germain," he said.
While Barcelona and Bayern have struggled to find form, Wenger pointed to champions Real as his early favourites.
When Wenger said how well they had played in beating Atletico Madrid 3-0 on Saturday, he almost sounded surprised.
"I was impressed by them," Wenger said. "They look to be the most dangerous side."
But if Arsenal win tonight, and win the group, they should avoid Europe's biggest guns until the quarter-finals at least. The Gunners have only won their group once in the last six seasons, in 2011-12, which is why they keep drawing Bayern and Barca, and getting knocked out.
Of course, being seeded does not guarantee an easy draw. Arsenal were knocked out by AC Milan in 2012. Either Real or Borussia Dortmund will finish second in Group F.
For Wenger, though, repeated second-place finishes are a frustration and an embarrassment. This year his team can prove they are on the up again.
"I feel guilty when we finish second and have a difficult tie," Wenger admitted. "Let's finish first and have the advantage to play the second game at home. Hopefully we will be injury free."
Arsenal's last two games were Tottenham at home and Manchester United away. They drew both 1-1 and impressed in neither. Tonight is a chance to show they can play well without Santi Cazorla and Hector Bellerin.
"When you play at home against a big team, you want to win," Wenger said. "We played Tottenham, were 1-0 up and didn't win, so we need to show that we can do that."
To win tonight would be more than three points, it would be a statement. If Arsenal do that then there is no reason why they cannot push towards the semis, for the first time since 2009.
Wenger feels Arsenal are "ready" to make an impression again, after too many years getting knocked out before March. It all starts tonight.
- Arsenal v PSG, Champions League Group A: Emirates Stadium, Tonight, 7.45pm