ARSENAL 0 BAYERN MUNICH 2
In recent seasons I’ve felt a little blasé about our Champions League ‘Round of 16’ fixtures. Due to our scraps for fourth place I have felt they were an unwelcome distraction, on the basis that we wouldn’t be good enough to win the tournament and that continued participation could potentially damage us mentally and physically. In that sense the heroic failures against Milan and Bayern were perfect; we could continue on our mission for fourth in the Premier League, whilst exiting the Champions League with our heads held high.
But Wednesday night was different. Since this time last year we’ve improved remarkably, resulting in a genuine title challenge and an FA Cup quarter-final to look forward to. And here we were about to face the same opposition in the Last 16; Bayern Munich, the reigning World and European champions. What better barometer to find out how far we have truly come?
I was confident we’d see a very different performance, a different story to last year, and for the first 37 minutes I was right. We started very quickly and were bossing the game, leaving Bayern rattled and shocked. Were they not expecting us to play at such a quick tempo? Were they perhaps expecting the same weak Arsenal they faced last year? Who knows. But we hit them hard and we hit them early and we should have been rewarded inside the first 10 minutes; Sanogo had a smart effort excellently saved by Neuer and then we were awarded a penalty, but sadly Neuer made another save, palming away Özil’s poor penalty. And then came the turning point.
Kroos played a delightful chip over our defence, Robben got to the ball just ahead of Szczesny, and was brought down by the Pole. There was definitely contact and it was definitely a penalty. But what weren’t required were the theatrics from Robben and the red card from the referee. I get tired of people saying “he was the last man”; that isn’t the rule. The rule is an obvious goal scoring opportunity and knocking the ball wide and away from goal isn’t one of them (not to mention the fact you’ve been award a penalty which is an obvious goal scoring opportunity). And then of course there’s the fact that things shouldn’t have even progressed that far as Mandzukic was clearly offside in the build-up and is clearly interfering with play as he deliberately blocks Koscielny who is attempting to track Robben’s run (image below via @mccroix).
The second half became attack versus defence as Arsenal looked to hold the clean-sheet, but with only 12% possession for the entire second half (via @OptaJoe) and due to a wonderful strike from Kroos it wasn’t to be. But 0-1 would have been ok, given the circumstances, and certainly would have been retrievable in Munich. It’s for that reason I have no idea why Koscielny raced up field on a counter attack and then, once fouled, continued going forward to get on the end of the free-kick. Unsurprisingly the free-kick went straight into the arms of Neuer, Bayern broke forward, and with Koscielny still not back in position Flamini’s centre-half qualities were found wanting as Bayern made it 0-2 as Muller headed home a lovely cross from Lahm.
What started so promisingly ended so frustratingly. For 37 minutes, eleven versus eleven, we more than matched the Germans and a potential upset looked more than possible. Even at 0-1 I had the belief that we could turn things around in the second leg, but 0-2 just feels like a step too far. With the league title to fight for and an FA Cup more than achievable I can’t help but feel the best thing now might be another heroic defeat. That’s not to say we should give up or to say that we should field a weakened team in Munich, but a gracious exit may not be the worst thing in the world. We have some very difficult fixtures in March and if failure to progress means we can use our freed-up midweeks to rest, recuperate, and keep our title challenge on track then I don’t think I’d be complaining too much. But I guess that’s something we can discuss in a little more detail if we don’t make a miraculous comeback in Munich on the 11th March.
One final thought about the game versus Munich and it’s for the fans. I thought the atmosphere was fantastic, just as it was against Liverpool in the FA Cup. The mosaic was a wonderful entrance for the players and the noise was deafening. It’s great to see and hear everyone playing their part; let’s keep it up.
BACK TO THE BREAD AND BUTTER
It’s back to league action this weekend as we host Sunderland at The New Home of Football. I must admit I’m a little nervous as to the potential physical side effects from Wednesday night, but fingers crossed everyone has enough left in the tank to get us the three points. The terms must win is over used and as my good friend @thatsimonrose always says surely every game is must win, or at least always a want to win. But I think it’s fair to say that when you’re challenging for the title and are playing at home against relegation strugglers then it’s not a fixture you want to be dropping points in. And last, but by no means least, don’t forget that the Dennis Bergkamp statue is being unveiled before the game, so why not get there early and check it out. Up The Arsenal.