MUNICH -- After narrowly failing with mission impossible and making another early Champions League knockout exit, the immediate thought was that it might be a while before we see Arsenal again in Europe’s elite competition.
The Londoners are now condemned to a hugely unsatisfactory eighth consecutive season without a trophy and must adjust their sights to what Arsene Wenger controversially calls the campaign’s fifth trophy – a top-four league finish.
Wenger’s team faces perhaps its most demanding task yet to book a return to Europe’s top table next season, with a five-point Premier League deficit needed to be made up on fourth-placed Chelsea.
Yet this nearly-but-not-quite triumph at the home of mighty Bayern Munich, which inflicted only the third defeat of the season on a team 20 points clear at the Bundesliga summit, will provide an injection of belief to a group of players who have so often looked anxious on the big occasion.
“A bad performance tonight could have been terrible for the morale of the team and our pride as well,” Wenger said afterward.
It was why the Frenchman shook up his frail squad by axing his captain and his goalkeeper in a rare display of ruthlessness.
Widespread UK reports had claimed that Wenger was willing to concede the match by resting some of his most influential players but they proved misguided as the best available XI was tasked with overcoming Everest-high odds.
Maybe Wenger should wield the hatchet more often. Though far from dominant, his team displayed an unexpected degree of resilience and assertiveness, conjuring a pulsating finale to nearly produce one of the biggest two-legged turnarounds in Champions League history.
The manager dodged questions about whether dumped skipper Thomas Vermaelen and goalie Wojciech Szczesny will be recalled at Swansea City on Saturday, but there was enough evidence to suggest he should stick with the rearguard that looked accomplished in one of Europe’s most unforgiving arenas.
“I believe our defense played very well overall,” said Wenger. “They looked in control and solid defensively. [Carl] Jenkinson, [Per] Mertesacker, [Laurent] Koscielny, [Kieran] Gibbs and [Lukasz] Fabianski all had good games. You are never going to stop a team like Bayern creating chances."
Jenkinson, in particular, caught the eye, which should play down fears among fans that the impending exit of Bacary Sagna this summer is a doomsday situation.
Arsenal now has 10 matches to clinch the 17thconsecutive top-four place of Wenger’s reign and rescue what has otherwise been a forgettable campaign.
If it faisl in what seems to be the club’s over-riding priority every season, there will be comparisons with Liverpool, whose status and money-making potential has been eroded by three consecutive campaigns without Champions League soccer.
Yet Arsenal’s directors will not be mooching around with begging bowls, even if the team cannot close the gap on Chelsea and Tottenham by May 19.
The north Londoners are far better placed to cope without the minimum 25 million pounds of TV revenue and participation money that is handed out annually by UEFA to the Premier League teams who climb aboard the gravytrain of the Champions League group stages.
With 123 million pounds sitting in the bank – an estimated 90m pounds of which could be spent on transfers and salaries – Arsenal will be one of the most cash-rich clubs in Europe this summer.
On the horizon are commercial deals that will provide a massive spike to the club’s revenue streams. A 150 million pound a year sponsorship deal with Emirates, which runs from 2014 to 2019, has been partially frontloaded to allow investment in the squad this summer and a new 20m pounds a year kit manufacturing contract is also likely to be secured in the coming months.
One of the clauses in the Emirates agreement is that Arsenal will miss out on a few million pounds each season if it is not competing in the Champions League. But the conclusion that can be drawn from analysing Arsenal’s accounts is the club has the resources to withstand the considerable hit of finishing outside the top four the season.
In the medium and long terms, the Londoners are extremely well placed to take advantage of the new financial fair play rules that will truly begin to bite next year.
The infrastructure of the club is sound and the business model is sensible, if counter-productively cautious at times.
This means that Wenger, and there is no hint whatsoever of a managerial change this summer with or without Champions League action next season, will still have a sizable kitty to beef up a squad that is lacking in many areas, most critically in a spine that is too flimsy in comparison to its rivals.
A new goalkeeper, center back, right back, midfield anchorman and forward will all be targeted this summer in what is expected to be a considerable turnover of the squad.
Yet one consequence of not being a Champions League club is the greater difficulty of attracting the very top bracket of players.
As one well-placed source pointed out, “We would still be able to afford Mario Gotze but the difficulty would be in enticing him without the lure of playing in the Champions League.”
There is also the wider issue of whether Arsenal would be willing to be as ruthless with its egalitarian wage structure as Wenger was with Vermaelen in Munich.
Offer top dollar and you attract top players. It is simple economics.
Most neutrals at home and abroad have a high regard for how Arsenal has decorated the Champions League during the Wenger years.
Its style and adventure will be missed if it is absent in 2013-14. But the ramifications should not be terminal.