LONDON: Walking all over Olympiakos and Aston Villa, Arsenal were living the good life. But then came a Champions League round-of-16 draw that pitted them against the dominant force in club football of the past 10 years and heaped more pressure on Arsene Wenger's men to win the Premier League.
Like it or not, this is the implication of Arsenal v Barcelona in February. There are no white flags in Highbury and Islington. To abandon hope of upsetting the European champions would be a crime against the crest. There was a message, though, in Arsenal going top of the Premier League table 24 hours before this draw was made.
Continental honours would be nice. Domestic honours are obligatory for a club with Arsenal's stock of talent. The Premier League is practically inviting them up the aisle.
An enjoyably chaotic season is begging Wenger's team to impose themselves on Leicester City and Man-chester City. The plan must surely be to exploit that opportunity between now and February, and treat the Barcelona tie as a pressure-free chance to upset the natural order. And the current Arsenal side seem to like being written off, as they showed with a 3-0 win in Athens.
"Chelsea ...ouch! Arsenal ...ouch! Man City good draw," wrote Alan Shearer when the names came out. Chelsea face Paris St-Germain while Manchester City, group winners for the first time, will be warm favourites against Dynamo Kiev. A second season of no 'English' teams in the quarter-finals would be unthink-able for a league gorging itself on yet more television money, which will surely stop flowing so freely if the standard remains questionable.
For the international TV 'consumer' accustomed to watching Manchester United, Arsenal, Man-chester City and Liverpool (in a good year) - and Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo or Luis Suarez on English pitches - the "best league in the world" jingle has a limited lifespan. England's most marketable name have downsized to the -Europa League, with Manchester United drawing FC Midtjylland from Denmark, while Liverpool play Augsburg and Tottenham Hotspur face Fiorentina.
The English never cease to be condescending about the Europa League. United are the authors of their own distress. The Champions League remains the main proving ground for the big European leagues, however much we enjoy the rise of Leicester City.
England's representatives, though, have cast themselves in the underdog role, with Arsenal needing a remarkable piece of escapology at Olympiakos and Chelsea hosting Porto all-a-jitter over Jose Mourinho's future.
The formbook is not on Arsenal's side. They lost the 2006 final to Barcelona and were also on the wrong end of Catalonian brilliance in the 2009-10 quarter-finals and 2010-11 round of 16. Five times in a row Wenger's European adventure has ended before the quarter-finals. Last season's reverse to Monaco on away goals was the worst of those let-downs.
Chelsea, an outpost of Russian money, are tied 1-1 with the Qatari sovereign wealth mountain that is PSG. Winners in a quarter--final in 2014, England's current champions were losers at this stage last year (on away goals).
Jose Mourinho already knows his Premier League title has been surrendered. His hopes of finishing in the top four are also slim (they are 14 points adrift of fourth position). So Chelsea are Arsenal's opposite: all Mourinho's chips will be staked on emulating the 2012 side who smashed their way to the Champions League title.
There will also be increased sensitivity around the behaviour of Chelsea fans in Paris in light of the Metro incident last season when a black man, Souleymane S, was pushed off a carriage by Chelsea supporters and racist chanting was captured on mobile phone footage.
Chelsea's shortcomings this season will have been noted in the French capital but PSG defender Thiago Silva expects Mourinho's side to prove harder opponents than they were last year. "I think it will be tougher this season. We know the Chelsea players well and we know they will give everything to get past the last 16 - but so will we," he said.
City should also feel their chances are improving. Too reliant on the fitness of Sergio Aguero and Vincent Kompany, they have two months to find a formula that works regardless of whether their two most influential players are on the pitch. Manuel Pellegrini, the manager who has added little so far to City's European efforts, will have to draw more from the club's many expensive understudies.
Sergei Rebrov, the former Tot-tenham striker who now coaches Kiev, is certainly not in awe of his moneyed opponents. "Everyone has weak points. Our job is to find them. It will be a busy time in the Premier League then. Clubs will play twice a week and this also will be significant," he said.
City's fans, though, can realistically dream of a first quarter-final appearance, encouraged by the fact that Dynamo Kiev must play their home leg in an empty stadium - part of a three-match stadium ban imposed by Uefa after supporters were involved in racist incidents during a home group match with Chelsea in October.
The imagination glows brightest for the majesty of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Suarez on the Arsenal pitch, where Mesut Ozil now seems to understand that dominating English football with his skills is within his range. But his day job - the Premier League - comes first.