The Champions League had brought nothing but misery for Arsenal so far this season, but on Tuesday it was the stage for one of the club’s finest results, and performances, in some time. Whether it proves to be one of the most significant has yet to be decided.
Two woeful defeats, first at Dinamo Zagreb and then at home to Olympiakos, had left Arsenal merely clinging onto hope of continuing a streak of 15 straight seasons in the Champions League’s last 16. They were heading into back-to-back matches against the world’s most devastatingly in-form team. Bayern Munich had won all 12 of their matches this season, yet Arsene Wenger had no qualms in admitting that three points was the bare minimum required from the two matches.
The early stages at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday indicated just how tough that objective would be. Bayern dominated possession, leaving Arsenal struggling to get a foothold. But gradually the hosts did find their feet, and showed that when fully focused and tactically disciplined they can give Europe’s best sides a run for their money.
Rather than naively over-committing in panic, Arsenal were playing shrewdly, conceding the bulk of possession to Bayern and positioning themselves to strike with purpose on the break. When they had to defend, they impressed, too. And the influence of goalkeeper Petr Cech cannot be overstated. There were some notable saves, but his mere presence appeared to have a calming effect on those in front of him.
It was no surprise that Wenger was asked afterward if he had regrets over not selecting the former Chelsea stalwart for Arsenal’s first two Champions League matches, when replacement David Ospina conceded five goals. It was even less of a surprise that Wenger refused to comment. Despite late goals from Olivier Giroud and Mesut Özil to secure a 2-0 win, those two losses could yet prevent Arsenal from enjoying Champions League action into the spring for the first time since 2000.
“I don’t know,” was Wenger’s response when asked how he assessed his side’s chances of qualifying after beating Bayern. “We need a result at Bayern in our next game.”
There is still a huge amount of work for Arsenal to do. While there was cause for joyous celebrations in north London, in Zagreb things were not going Arsenal’s way. With 11 minutes remaining, Brown Ideye scored to give Olympiakos a 1-0 win away to Dinamo Zagreb and put the Greek champions in prime position to join Bayern in the Round of 16.
Olympiakos now host Dinamo in two weeks’ time, knowing that a victory would leave them on nine points and likely needing just a single point from their final two matches at Bayern and at home to Arsenal. Wenger’s side dearly need to get a positive result in Munich against a Bayern team that will likely be more tuned in than they were on Tuesday.
The good news for Arsenal is they have emerged with credit from the Allianz Arena before. In both 2013 and 2014, Arsenal crashed out to Bayern in the last 16 of the Champions League, but they did so after getting a win and a draw in Munich in the second legs. A similar result this time around would be greeted far more fondly and set them up for a chance of pulling off a great escape in their final two matches.
“We have three more games, it was tough for us -- we had to win today to try to go to the next round,” midfielder Santi Cazorla said after the Bayern win, per Arsenal’s official website. “The most important thing was to win and now we have to prepare for the next games, against Bayern away, Dinamo at home and Olympiakos away.”