The Champions League group stages, often enough, are a straightforward procedure for a team like Arsenal and present more trouble with figuring out how to keep the team ready for league matches on the following weekends. Not this time. The draw looked fine, maybe not for winning the group, but certainly for qualifying for another round of eliminations. Bayern Munich would make that first goal difficult, but Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiakos didn’t appear so daunting.
To borrow a very tired saying…that’s why they play the matches. Losing the first two and now sitting bottom of the group on zero points, Arsenal have to take on Europe’s most dominant team so far this season and, somehow, claw their way back into the reckoning. Bayern have yet to lose or draw a match—in the Bundesliga nor in the Champions League. This is a team on fire, full of confidence and looking for opportunities to show their quality.
But, like they say… that’s why they play the matches… 😀
Arsenal have looked MUCH better since that loss to Olympiakos 3 weeks ago. Two 3-nil victories in league play and almost all their first teamers jetting off to play with their national teams AND returning home both uninjured and with renewed confidence on the back of goals and team success have helped ease the pain of losing to the Greeks.
Returning to Champions League football, of course, makes the wound fresh again. The team—and the home support—in my opinion, however, should be looking at this one as an opportunity to see if Arsenal can take their game not only to a rebuilding Manchester United team (nor a solid, recently promoted group from Watford) but to perhaps the most in-form club in all of Europe. Daunting, yes; impossible or unimaginable, no.
That’s not to say we don’t have psychological barriers to hurdle if we want to create the night we need in North London. Bayern have been a thorn in our sides in 2 of the past 3 seasons, not at the group stage, but in the round of 16. Both times, Pep Guardiola’s team beat us in our own stadium and effectively ended the two-legged tie on our turf.
The first time, in 2013, goals from Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and Mario Mandzukic were too much to overcome in the return leg (which Arsenal won 2-nil). In 2014, despite an early penalty won by Mesut Ozil, we were undone when Ozil failed to convert it into a goal and when, not long after, Arren Robben, with not a small measure of theatrics, won his team the double whammy: a penalty in the box and the sending off of goal-keeper Wojcheik Szczesny. Even though Bayern also missed their penalty, playing a man down was too much, and Arsenal conceded two goals (to Kroos and Muller) in the second period. In the return leg, a 1-1 draw was plenty to see Bayern through to the quarterfinals.
Those home matches will be psychological scars Arsenal must put behind us. It should be noted, however, that among the principal characters for Bayern listed above, Kroos and Mandzukic now play their football in Spain, while the Flying Dutchman (Robben) is out injured. Only Thomas Muller remains, as does the considerable threat his intelligent running brings to the front of the Bayern attack.
Of course, up and down their line-up, Bayern have great players. Some of those I admire most are German World Cup winners Philip Lahm and (goalkeeper) Manuel Neuer. They also probably have the most in-form striker in all of world football, Robert Lewandowski. Douglas Costa, attacking from a wider area, is not far behind.
Arsenal’s first eleven, however, are no slouches and they should be able to take the pitch with plenty of confidence themselves. Mesut Ozil, coming off a goal and three assists in those last two matches, will be keen to show his fellow Germans, many of whom he played alongside in winning the 2014 World Cup, that he is enjoying his football at Arsenal. Alexis Sanchez, a new acquisition since those eliminations vs Bayern, scored 3 goals in those matches and a couple more with the Chilean National team. Perhaps most importantly, we now have a world class goal-keeper of our own, Petr Cech, one of the very few who can compare career statistics with Neuer.
I don’t see any major surprises in the team-sheet for this one and expect no changes from the squad which faced Watford on Saturday, except perhaps on the bench. Manager Arsene Wenger will want no excuses for this one and has even eliminated the worry (or was it a promise?…) about David Ospina starting our Champions League matches.
Bench: Macey, Gabriel, Debuchy, Gibbs, Arteta, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Campbell
What about tactics? Having complete command of the group (mostly due to our failures), Bayern may be tempted to try to kill this match with possession and may be quite happy with a draw. Guardiola may also wish to conduct a master-class in tika-taka and might be content showing that he has the better footballing team even if the goal count remains even. As such, I think Bayern will be more eager to limit our threat rather than show off their own. Starting solidly and maybe finding some runs in behind Bayern’s back line will be necessary if we’re to get the goal which might have them come out a bit further. Both teams will want to avoid their tendencies towards playing too high a back line. Personally, I would love to see some pointed chasing from Theo Walcott at least putting some stress on Neuer’s desire to be the world’s best ‘sweeper-keeper.’ Pouncing on an error or two at the back of midfield could be the way through for either team.
It could be a barn burner or it could be a chess match. My hope is that Arsenal take the pitch with confidence and belief and see the match as a chance to test themselves against the very best. There’s no room to hide against a team like this, so, in truth, I see no alternative.
Just my view, as always, of course. Over to you…