Arsenal’s 4-2 win over Bate Borisov in their recent Europa League tie took me back to a Wednesday evening in May 1994. I remember watching the Cup Winners’ Cup Final with my Dad on a small TV in our lounge, hiding my head behind a sofa cushion for much of the second half as Parma, Arsenal’s opponents that evening, pushed for an equaliser.
It is one of my early and distinctive memories of a European final, and although not a classic in terms of scoreline, it was as tense and intriguing a match as any I have seen since. There was much complaining last season when the Gunners failed to secure a top four finish, a fate relished by some of the doom merchants that pedalled stark warnings of how this would be the end of Arsenal as we know it, yet that 5th placed finish could be a blessing in disguise.
The Europa League draw has been kind to Arsenal, with match ups against Bate Borisov, Crvena Zvezda and 1.FC Köln, and when you look at their group it is hard to see them not breezing through it. In terms of winning the competition, Arsenal are 6/1 in football betting markets and find themselves holding the ‘favourites’ tag ahead of the likes of big-spending AC Milan. Back in 1994, the Gunners were almost certainly the unfancied outsider and were a stark contrast to their modern counterparts.
George Graham had a side that, with Seaman, Dixon, Bould, Adams and Winterburn at the back, were renown for being defensively solid, something that Arsène Wenger’s current side are not. The Frenchman has brought an attacking style that is now famously and intrinsically linked to the North London side, even if there is always this niggling concern that a soft goal or a mistake may be around the corner. The 1994 Gunners gave the fans more confidence about their ability to get the job done, mainly due to that solid defence, but they had attacking prowess too. In the side that lined up against Parma in Copenhagen were players like speedster Kevin Campbell, England international Alan Smith, who scored the winner, and a young creative spark by the name of Paul Merson. The fact that they were able to contain a Parma side that included the likes of Gianfranco Zola, Tomas Brolin and Faustino Asprilla just goes to show what a solid team Graham had.
The current Arsenal squad has a wealth of attacking talent and they were able to rip Bate Borisov apart with ease despite giving many of their fringe players a game. This is a very winnable competition for Wenger’s side, and with a Champions League place up for grabs for the winner, the prize is well worth the effort. If we take qualifying from this group as a given for the Gunners, the key will be getting past the potentially tricky knock out stages, but if they take the Europa League seriously then they may create and enjoy some wonderful European nights this season.
So before you deride or write off the competition completely, just remember that if Arsenal run out in Lyon in May there might just be an eight year old boy watching at home with his Dad, creating the kind of vivid football memories that will last a lifetime.