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Don’t Forget About Arsenal

Arsenal's Spanish goalkeeper #22 David Raya, Arsenal's Norwegian midfielder #08 Martin Odegaard, Arsenal's English midfielder #07 Bukayo Saka, Arsenal's English defender #04 Ben White and Arsenal's English midfielder #41 Declan Rice celebrate after winning the penalty shoot-out session the UEFA Champions League last 16 second leg football match between Arsenal and Porto FC at the Arsenal Stadium in north London, on March 12, 2024
Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

On Sunday, Liverpool hosted Manchester City in what was then a one-versus-two Premier League match-up. It was a hell of a game. City came out hot to start and notched an opening goal off a sweet corner routine, before Liverpool took control of the second half, equalizing on a penalty in the 50th minute. Both teams had chances the rest of the way; Liverpool's Luis Díaz missed opportunity after opportunity, while City hit the post twice. There was also a controversial penalty non-call in stoppage time to add to the drama, but in the end, a well-fought 1-1 draw left both sides equally happy and disappointed. That draw also had a knock-on effect: After 28 matches, it is neither Liverpool nor Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table, but rather, by virtue of a superior goal difference, it is Arsenal.

It's not particularly surprising that Arsenal is back here. Last season, the Gunners lead the Premier League for a big chunk of the campaign before faltering at the end, just as City took control. The story is playing out similarly this year, even if the battle at the top of the table has an additional combatant in Liverpool. Arsenal's bonafides are for real, and it's clear that the club is improving as the season goes on.

Over the last two months, the North London side has been in scorching form, with only a blemish coming in the Champions League, where it lost 1-0 away to Porto in the first leg of the round of 16 (more on that tie in a bit). Other than that slip up on Feb. 21, Arsenal has won every game since Jan. 7, when it lost to Liverpool in the FA Cup. That's eight straight Premier League wins, and they haven't been squeakers; the Gunners have won games 5-0, 3-1 (against that same Liverpool), 6-0, 5-0, 4-1, and 6-0. It was only in its latest match, a 2-1 victory against Brentford on Saturday thanks to a late Kai Havertz winner, that Arsenal was truly pushed to the limit during this run of domestic dominance.

Otherwise, it has been smooth sailing, with goals coming from all over the pitch, and with the defense holding strong (the team is giving up 0.5 goals per match during this streak). The additions of Declan Rice and Havertz have done wonders for a team that struggled in both midfield and creating chances last season; the former has been especially great, while the latter is rounding into top form just as the season turns to the trickiest segment.

It's almost a bummer that the league form had to be put aside on Tuesday in favor of the Champions League second leg, back in England. Arsenal did what it had to do, though that undersells how tough the task was. Porto may not be anyone's idea of European elite, but the club has plenty of experience in the knockout stages of the Champions League, and the Portuguese giants made Arsenal work hard for its spot in the quarterfinals.

Entering Tuesday's match down 1-0 on aggregate was a tough task for the Gunners, but not an impossible one. Arsenal, by virtue of winning its group, got the advantage of playing the second leg at home, and so all it had to at least get to penalties was win in London. A nervy first half saw Porto stave off waves of Arsenal attacks, but a nifty give-and-go with Martin Odegaard found Leandro Trossard in the visitors' box with enough space to turn a shot into the far netting, equalizing the tie for the home side in the 41st minute:

And that's how it would stand through the rest of regular time. Porto didn't quite have any great chances, but its defense did do enough to keep Arsenal at bay and push the game into extra time. The Gunners did see the ball go into the back of the net in the 67th minute, but that goal was ruled out for Kai Havertz's unnecessary shirt pull on (41-year-old!) Pepe in the build-up:

Side note: Pepe was immense for Porto on Tuesday, which shouldn't be allowed, both due to his age and his historical dickishness, but it happened. By the time the extra 30 minutes came into play, both teams were gassed. Every Arsenal attack seemed to peter out just outside the Porto box, and sometimes inside, while the visitors were content to reinforce the backline and send a few speculative and worthless counter-attacks the other way, mostly just to give their defenders a second to breathe.

It worked, and so we arrived at penalty kicks. Credit to both teams: This was a straightforward shootout, with no real blunders or cringeworthy spot kicks. Six players stepped up and slammed theirs home, while Arsenal keeper David Raya stopped two of Porto's to send the Gunners into the quarterfinals by a score of 4-2. If there's anything to complain about in the shootout, it's Porto's decision to put left back Wendell as the second penalty taker. Unless a club has a ball-striking wingback of legendary quality, such as a Marcelo or a Trent Alexander-Arnold, they should not be taking a penalty kick unless absolutely necessary. I don't know if the math backs this up, it's just a personal feeling supported by Wendell's shot getting saved by Raya's fingertips and also the post. I love confirmation bias.

While the more cynical (you could also call them single-minded, or even pragmatic) of Arsenal fans would maybe have preferred a loss here, so as to focus wholly on the league campaign, it's the damn Champions League. If a club can stay alive in that tournament, it will try its hardest to do so, domestic difficulties be damned. Arsenal has proven since that 5-0 win over Crystal Palace in late January that is for real, and a contender for both of the continent's biggest trophies, and so living to play another day in the Champions League is worth its weight in prize money and prestige.

Arsenal's survival does complicate the rest of its season somewhat, though, if the main goal is to stave off Liverpool and Manchester City. Thanks to a quirk of scheduling that sees roughly half the Premier League play league games this weekend and a big chunk of the other half play FA Cup ties, plus an international break coming next week, Arsenal is now off until March 31 where it faces ... oh boy, Manchester City. Meanwhile, the Champions League quarterfinals will fall on April 9 or 10 for the first leg and April 16 or 17 for the second. This means that Arsenal will have eight games from the City match at the end of this month through a North London Derby against Tottenham on April 27.

In other words, it's soon to be crunch time for the Gunners. If they are to win one or both of the trophies still in play, they will need to perform about as well as they have for the last two months for at least one more. Fatigue will settle in, as will doubts; it was April last season that doomed Arsenal to a five-point deficit and a second-place finish in the Premier League, culminating in a 4-1 loss to City on April 26. This is a better and more experienced side than last year's, and Arsenal has shown in recent weeks that it can win big and tough. Heading into the busiest and toughest stretch of its season, that run of form might just be what the Gunners need to reach one or both of the promised lands in its sights.

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