All is going swimmingly for Arsenal in the Premier League. On Saturday the north London club made it three successive emphatic victories by easing past Watford, 3-0, to remain second in the table. But on Tuesday they return to action in a competition that has brought far less positivity this season.
After losing their first two games, Arsenal’s prospects of making it past the first Champions League group stage for a 16th successive season are hanging by a thread. And next up at the Emirates Stadium is the first of back-to-back meetings with Europe’s top-form team, Bayern Munich. Given the scale of Arsenal’s task, there have even been suggestions that manager Arsene Wenger will already begin placing the priority on chasing a first Premier League title in 12 years.
There are, though, as yet, no suggestions that Wenger has opted to alter his team selection in order to keep players fresh for their domestic pursuits. Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil, who both excelled against Watford in a match that was for deep stretch was a struggle but after three goals in 12 minutes became a stroll, look set to start. Sánchez has now scored seven goals in his last four matches following a slow start after Copa America play with Chile.
Another key selection issue has already been resolved. With David Ospina (shoulder) out with an injury, Petr Cech will line up in goal. The scenario likely brings significant relief to Wenger after he was widely criticized for starting with Ospina, in preference to his solitary signing in the summer transfer window, in Arsenal’s first two Champions League fixtures. The fact that Ospina made a glaring error as Arsenal lost 3-2 at home to Olympiakos three weeks ago only brought further scrutiny on the decision.
Yet even with Cech, and at full strength, Arsenal will have their work cut out for them. The defeat to Olympiakos meant that Arsenal have now lost six of their last 12 home games in the competition. And two of those have come against their next opponents.
Bayern Munich dashed Arsenal’s Champions League hopes in the first knockout round in 2013 and 2014. And the Bavarians enter this latest fixture playing arguably as well as ever. Bayern have won all 12 of their competitive matches this season. A 1-0 win at Werder Bremen saw them become the first team in history to win their first nine matches in the Bundesliga, while in the Champions League they brushed Olympiakos and Dinamo Zagreb aside, 3-0 and 5-0, respectively.
Leading the way for Pep Guardiola’s side has been Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, who has hit 19 goals in his last 11 games for club and country. And the former Borussia Dortmund man insists Bayern have no plans to take their foot off the gas in London.
“We want to take three points from the game, but know that it's pretty much Arsenal's last chance to get into the next round of the competition,” he told Bundesliga.com. “It's going to be a very tight match and a tough nut for us to crack. But the requirement for us is to win there.
Adding to the impressiveness of Bayern’s form is that it has been achieved despite several key injuries. The likes of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery remain absent, providing an opportunity for summer signings Douglas Costa and now-fit Kinglsey Coman to continue to flourish. Mehdi Benatia, Mario Götze, Sebastian Rode and Holger Badstuber are also sidelined.
As well as Ospina, Arsenal will continue to be without forward Danny Welbeck and midfielders Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky. However, Brazilian defender Gabriel will be available following illness.
Prediction: Arsenal have achieved positive results on their two recent visits to Munich, but have been outclassed by Bayern in the first legs of their knockout matches at the Emirates. It is difficult to see a different outcome this time around. Bayern are playing at a scintillating level and can hurt Arsenal both through methodical buildup play and a more direct threat led by the pace of Costa out wide and the penalty-box predatory of Lewandowski. Arsenal could find the step up in class startling compared to any previous opponent they’ve encountered so far this season and be left facing zero points after three Champions League matches.
Predicted score: Arsenal 1-2 Bayern Munich