Dennis Bergkamp was guilty of wishful thinking when he stood on the running track surrounding the Arsenal pitch late on Wednesday night and suggested that "sometimes to get through this stage is the hardest thing".
His team had ensured qualification from the first phase of the Champions' League in dramatic fashion, Thierry Henry's last-minute goal securing the necessary two-goal victory over Real Mallorca, and the whole place was on a Highbury high. But the facts hardly support the experienced Dutchman's theory. Squeezing past Mallorca and Schalke with a game to spare is one thing; whatever combination of qualifiers Arsenal come up against in the next stage will include two group winners and perhaps even a team or two who are actually champions of their country – something Arsène Wenger's team have managed to avoid so far. How about a section with Real Madrid, Juventus and Bayern Munich, Dennis?
Bayern were among Arsenal's opponents last season, taking four points off them as the Londoners scraped into the quarter-finals despite winning only two of their six matches. The first phase, in comparison, had been a cakewalk, with the only defeat in six coming in the "dead" match away to Shakhtar Donetsk. This time, poor away form has handicapped them, making it necessary to win every home game, which has duly been achieved, thanks in the main to the goals of Henry.
The Frenchman knocked in two in the fortuitous 3-2 victory over Schalke and two more to beat Panathinaikos, the group winners, before remaining admirably calm in stoppage time, when sent clear of a Mallorca defence scattered to the north London winds. That gave Henry 13 goals in 14 games this season, earning him the accolade of Europe's best striker from Wenger, and a rest from next Wednesday's irrelevant final match away to the Germans.
The previous night an equally grateful Sir Alex Ferguson had nominated Ruud van Nistelrooy. "I don't agree with him. We have the best," said Wenger, with a smile, never quite able to resist a little dig in the direction of Old Trafford. "They are two great strikers but Thierry is top, top class. I'm a great believer in him, I brought him here and put him in this position. He's not only such a great player, but such a great athlete as well. And he doesn't miss those chances any more, like a year ago. That shows how much he's improved."
Henry said that his original intention when picking up Giovanni van Bronckhorst's quick free-kick (technically an illegal one, as the ball was moving) was to pass. "Giovanni was very intelligent to see me and play the ball really quickly, which made all the difference. I stopped my run because I wanted to play the ball for Robert Pires. Then I saw the defender stay with him and I had to be responsible and take my chance."
Take it he did and Arsenal had reached the last 16 for the second successive season, after two earlier seasons of frustration. The club has still never gone as far as the semi-final of the European Cup, whether under Bertie Mee – remembered in a minute's silence before Wednesday's game – George Graham or Wenger, and there are lessons to be learnt from the current campaign.
Bergkamp pinpointed one, the need for greater concentration in defence after building a hard-earned lead; leaving the pitch to a standing ovation after 72 minutes, having scored the second goal with a rare header, he offered high-fives all round and clearly believed the job was done. Barely had he sat down than there came a reminder that Van Bronckhorst, like Ashley Cole, is not the soundest of left-backs defensively, as Alvaro Novo stole into the space behind him to make the score 2-1.
That result would have left Arsenal needing a draw away to Schalke to go through. Fortunately Mallorca, who could not afford a defeat, decided to forget about defence altogether, leaving vast gaps that Pires, Nwankwo Kanu and Ray Parlour almost exploited before Henry's flourish. Schalke and Panathinaikos had also come to Highbury with little to lose, but the next set of opponents will hardly be as cavalier in their approach.
Conversely, Wenger has now accepted that Arsenal must be more positive away from home, following timid displays and 1-0 defeats on their last four trips to Europe. Whatever team he puts out, the game against Schalke on Tuesday would be a good opportunity to implement a bolder strategy, against a team who need to win to have any chance of pipping Mallorca for third spot and a place in the Uefa Cup.
"This was a big step but there's still a long way to go," Bergkamp summed up. That had the ring of truth about it.Reuse content