Arsenal’s worst fears have been realized. The concession of two goals in the final 16 minutes in Naples, when Arsenal passively meandered through their final group match in the knowledge that it required a dramatic capitulation to miss out on progressing, has come back to haunt them. For the second-straight year, Arsenal will meet Bayern Munich in the Round of 16 of the Champions League. This time they will be taking on the European champions.
Ironically the main source of optimism for fans of Arsene Wenger’s side heading into the tie derives from exactly the same sort of performance from Bayern that got Arsenal into this predicament. Arsenal won 2-0 in the Allianz Arena earlier this year and ultimately only fell short of beating the eventual winners of the competition on away goals. That performance has regularly been cited since as a major turning point for Arsenal and one that inspired them to a terrific run to claim a Champions League place this season and one that now has them sitting atop the Premier League.
In terms of the confidence it infused into the players that may well be accurate, but reading anything more into the result would be unwise. Bayern had dominated Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in the first leg and with a 3-1 lead they were clearly of the mindset, somewhat understandably, that the work had been done. The Bavarians subsequently sleep-walked their way through the return match. So lacking in intensity were the home side that Arsenal could actually done a lot more themselves. As it was, there was never really a feeling that Arsenal would get the result required. The result from the first leg remains a more accurate barometer of the gulf in quality between the sides.
Of course, Arsenal are a significantly improved team now. In terms of their squad, the Gunners are obviously strengthened by the arrivals of Mesut Ozil and Mathieu Flamini. Ozil has provided genuine world-class quality, and specifically an expert facilitator and creator for those around him. His presence has also had the effect of lifting the performances of his teammates, knowing that they have to try and match his level while having the confidence that they have a player of his quality in their side. This has been most visible in the performances of Aaron Ramsey, whose transformation this season is akin to a new signing.
Flamini has also brought his own abilities -- notably a much-need willingness to do the less attractive facets of the game in midfield -- while, in a very different way to Ozil, inspiring those around him. In a team that has been devoid of leadership figures for some time, Flamini provides that by constantly cajoling players into position and demanding the maximum from them throughout the 90 minutes. The dramatic increase in Arsenal’s work-rate without the ball this season is surely in large part down to Flamini.
There is every reason then to think that Arsenal will give at least a far better account of themselves this time around. However, Bayern Munich are also improved from last season -- a campaign when they incredibly won a historic treble.
Bayern played with a relentless hunger last season, having painfully missed out on all three trophies the year before. After winning everything there can be a danger of complacency setting in. That, though, has been prevented by the arrival of Pep Guardiola and Bayern’s intensity has now been complemented by a knowing swagger and the evolution of their playing style under the former Barcelona coach.
Mario, Gotze, Thiago Alcantara and the brilliant transformed full-back Philipp Lahm provide further options to what was already a superb collection of midfielders. Guardiola has impressively implemented his relentless system of ball retention to complement, rather than take away from, the team’s existing traits. Opposition sides now get even fewer chances to hurt Bayern.
Arsenal have unquestionably been unfortunate to draw a team that is currently a class apart in Europe. Still, Wenger has shown this season, notably at the home of Bayern’s domestic rivals Borussia Dortmund, that he is now prepared to and capable of setting his side up to dig in and get a result in difficult circumstances. That ability could well see Arsenal keep the tie close heading back to Munich for the second leg. Ultimately, though, Bayern will likely just have too much quality and too many ways of hurting the Gunners. And that is no disgrace.
When and where: The first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie will be played at the Emirates Stadium on February 19, before the return match at the Allianz Arena on March 11.