Arsenal must hope for German draw
Arsene Wenger joked that the media may prefer to join Arsenal on a trip to Spain in the last 16 of the Champions League rather than head for Germany.
The Frenchman must hope the plane tickets take his side to the latter.
Wenger saw the Gunners maintain a proud record by reaching the last 16 for the 11th successive season with victory against Partizan Belgrade. But an unconvincing showing in an average group puts them in peril in this competition.
The prize for finishing second behind Shakhtar Donetsk will be a meeting with either Real Madrid or Barcelona, the "super favourites" as Wenger labelled them, or a tie against one of the German representatives, Bayern Munich or Schalke 04.
For all the post-match bravado coming out of the Arsenal dressing room, reality suggests the Germans represents an easier road to progress.
Plenty can happen between the conclusion of the group phase and the start of the knockout games but it is hard to see Arsenal flourishing against Jose Mourinho's Real or the brilliant Barca side that put them to the sword in a classic quarter-final last season.
Van Persie converts his penalty to put Arsenal 1-0 up. Photo: Reuters
Based on the evidence of their faltering performances in Group H, where even the final dash to the finishing line was not without its moments of anxiety against the gross mediocrity of Partizan Belgrade, it is certainly tough to imagine them coming out on top against the Spanish giants.
Bayern and Schalke are hardly easy options either but Arsenal appear to be in much better shape to tackle those challenges than La Liga's elite. The realists inside The Emirates will accept this and the pragmatists will hope for a meeting with Schalke.
Whoever Arsenal are drawn against - the draw takes place on Friday, 17 December - Wenger insists his team will improve on their group performances. He must hope he is right otherwise they will struggle against any potential opponents.
For long periods against Partizan, Arsenal's display matched the subdued mood inside ground, strangely so with qualification riding on the game. It took a late flurry to emphasise their undoubted superiority and seal safe passage to the next stage.
Robin van Persie's penalty was cancelled out by Cleo's deflected equaliser to leave Arsenal's fans checking for news from the game between Shakhtar and Braga before goals from substitute Theo Walcott and Samir Nasri erased their concerns.
It was not vintage Arsenal at any stage but this was about getting the job done. No marks for style, qualification was the name of the game. And now that has been achieved, Wenger is on very familiar Champions League territory.
There are pluses for Wenger. Nasri continues his development into a world-class talent, while Van Persie's return adds to Arsenal's attacking potency. The sight of Walcott and Jack Wilshere on the bench hints at the strength in depth that is available to Wenger, who will hope Cesc Fabregas, Thomas Vermaelen and Gael Clichy are all free from injury by the time the next stage comes around.
The problems lie elsewhere, mainly in central defence. If Vermaelen is still out, the prospect of Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci attempting to tame the might of Real Madrid or keep a lid on David Villa is probably one best contemplated from behind the sofa or facing away from the action.
Bacary Sagna will also miss the first leg of the next round as a result of a rather soft sending-off following his foul on Aleksandar Lazevski late in the game.
Andrey Arshavin kindly pointed out Arsenal's defensive frailties this week, although he did his own reputation no favours with a fruitless evening spent wandering around The Emirates. His utterly dreadful display earned him the ire of some home fans when he was removed prematurely.
Wenger was characteristically upbeat when asked if his squad was better equipped to go further than last year, when they lost 4-1 in the Nou Camp after a breathtaking 2-2 draw at The Emirates.
"We went out to Barcelona last season and I feel we had some room for improvement," he told BBC Sport. "A lot depends on whether you have your best players available. I am sure we will have a good level of confidence and then it is very difficult to predict how far you can go. But when you are in the last 16, the Champions League becomes a cup competition and things change. It has been like a championship up to now. Now we go into cup mode and you have to be at the top of your game for 180 minutes."
Nasri and Walcott celebrate another goal against Partizan. Photo: Reuters
He added: "Realistically Barcelona are super favourites in this competition but you take what you get. If it's Barcelona, it's Barcelona. We have played them already last season. We are in a strong position in the Premier League, qualified in the Champions League and in the semi-final of the Carling Cup. We have plenty of exciting challenges but also room for improvement. I am confident we will improve."
Arsenal became the fourth English team through to the last 16, joining Manchester United, Chelsea and fierce rivals Tottenham, adding another layer of interest to the latter stages of the tournament.
In many respects, Arsenal fall into a similar category as their north London neighbours. They are dangerous dark horses as opposed to potential winners, opponents who can be a threat at any time but may also be undone by over generosity in defence.
Mark Lawrenson, BBC Radio 5 live's summariser at The Emirates on Wednesday, made an intriguing assessment of the respective merits of Arsenal and Spurs.
"Spurs have cruised through their group, finishing top, while Arsenal came second but I think teams would rather play Spurs than Arsenal," he told me. "Spurs give you a chance with their open and expansive style. Arsenal do as well but not as much.
"I personally don't think any team would want to pull Arsenal out of the hat with the second leg at The Emirates and something riding on that game. Arsenal may give you a chance but they are very, very dangerous if they get it right.
"I think their problem is a mental thing. They can drift in games and fall asleep - and the higher the calibre of opposition the more chance there is of you being killed off if you do that. They are going to be a very dangerous team floating around that draw, though."
Food for thought for Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, even though Wenger may privately prefer to head for Germany.