Europa League harder for Arsenal than last year's winners Man United
Perhaps it is the "Mourinho treble." Not winning Serie A, the Coppa Italia and the Champions League, though Jose Mourinho accomplished all with Inter Milan in 2009-10, but lifting the League Cup, securing the Europa League and finishing sixth in the Premier League, which Manchester United did last season.
Marooned in sixth, facing Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final, Arsenal could copy them. Winning the secondary European competition looks like Arsene Wenger's best chance of returning Arsenal to the Champions League. But suggesting it is unlikely is not merely a comment on Arsenal's awful away form, their enduring defensive issues, the European ineligibility of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the knee injury Alexandre Lacazette has suffered.
It is because the much-maligned Europa League has undergone an upgrade in the past 12 months. Comparing the last 32 now with their equivalents last year suggests there has been an injection of quality. Look at United's path to victory in the knockout stages, when they faced St Etienne, Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo and Ajax, and it is hard to imagine anyone else will have as favourable a route this time around. Arsenal have drawn overachieving outsiders, in Ostersunds, first. Assuming they beat the Swedes, they should brace themselves for much tougher ties thereafter.
It is partly because 20 of the remaining 32 clubs come from England, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Portugal and Russia. Last season, it was only 14. The Europa League is illustrating the concentration of resources, of wealth and pools of players, in the biggest and richest domestic divisions. The greater representation of the lesser leagues 12 months ago was epitomised when two Belgian sides reached the quarterfinals; that will not happen again, just as there are no Dutch teams left. There seems greater strength in depth this year. There looks to be more stardust.
It reflects the influx of excellence from the Champions League. Rewind to September, and there were reasons to tip each of Atletico Madrid, Napoli, RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund to reach the last 16 of the premier European competition. Instead, each came third in its pool while there are no equivalents of Legia Warsaw and Ludogorets, who dropped down from the Champions League at this stage last season.
While Napoli might concentrate on winning Serie A for the first time since 1990, it is easier to imagine Atletico or Dortmund being able to prioritise Europe. The past is no guarantee of success in the future, but Atletico are double UEFA Cup winners and twice Champions League finalists in the past decade; Dortmund, on the other hand, were Champions League runners-up in 2012 and, until an extraordinary second half at Anfield, looked the finest side in the Europa League two years ago. United did not have to face opponents of their calibre last year.
There are clubs that might be able to target the Europa League -- Atletico, safely in the top four in Spain but highly unlikely to overhaul leaders Barcelona, seem a case in point -- and others who might have to. Like Arsenal, AC Milan almost certainly need to win the Europa League to enter the Champions League. Given the probability that they will fail Financial Fair Play, that requirement is exacerbated in the Italians' case. Perhaps Lazio, fifth in Serie A, or Lyon, fourth in Ligue 1, will be distanced from the Champions League places and switch their focus.
Consider individual countries' contingents, and the German sides look superior now to their counterparts 12 months ago. Aided by Atletico, the Spanish certainly should be. The French might be, partly because of Marseille. The Italians, grievous underachievers in the UEFA Cup since their decade of dominance in the 1990s, could be (Roma looked potential winners last season, only to exit to Lyon in the last eight). The other wild card might come from Russia. Zenit St. Petersburg and Lokomotiv Moscow look better candidates than Eastern Europe mustered last season; Roberto Mancini's side had the best group-stage record, indicating that a repeat of Zenit's 2008 triumph is not impossible.
Of course, caveats need to be inserted wherever the Europa League is concerned. Many clubs depart it without regret; without revealing their true ability. There are plenty of precedents for the last 32 to contain seemingly fine sides, many of them Italian, who make an immediate exit. Some, consciously or subconsciously, seem content to beat a swift retreat; others perhaps pay the price for performing poorly. Go back 12 months, and Tottenham and Fiorentina ranked among the favourites and then failed to reach the last 16.
But go back two years, and the last eight still comprised Villarreal, Sparta Prague, Dortmund, Liverpool, Braga, Shakhtar Donetsk, Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla. The standard felt far better than last season's quarterfinals. This year's promises to be higher again. And if none of that is a criticism of Mourinho or United, who could beat only the teams they were pitted against, Arsenal might find the back-door path to Champions League qualification blocked by more obdurate, more imposing opponents. The Mourinho treble might be achieved only by Mourinho because it will probably take a greater feat from Wenger to emulate his old enemy.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.