Arsenal got their still-promising season back on track by beating Liverpool on Sunday, but they are likely to require a performance among the best of Arsene Wenger’s 17-year reign to end the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Bayern Munich still in with a strong chance of progressing.
Following a 5-1 demolition by Liverpool the previous week and a nervy performance against Manchester United, Arsenal’s season appeared to be teetering on the edge of sliding to further disappointment. Had Daniel Sturridge been more ruthless in the opening five minutes at the Emirates at the weekend then they might well have tipped over, instead the Gunners settled and produced a composed performance to secure what was a much-needed, if still fortunate win.
Mathieu Flamini’s return from suspension was crucial to the victory. The Frenchman’s combination of tenacity and ability to inspire and organize those around him is unique in a collection of midfielders far better equipped with the ball at their feet. The onus on Flamini will be even greater on Tuesday with Mikel Arteta suspended and Arsenal facing a side who can control the ball in midfield like no other.
The options at Pep Guardiola’s disposal, both tactically and in terms of personnel are the envy of almost every coach in the world. That strength is far from simply being a case of mass stockpiling of players.
Few coaches will have taken the best full-back in the world and converted him into a superb facilitator of Bayern’s passing game at the base of their midfield. In a 4-0 win over Freiburg on Saturday, Lahm was joined by perhaps the embodiment of the multi-functional modern midfielder, Toni Kroos. Javi Martinez, operated in central defense, while his partner in Bayern’s all-conquering midfield en route to the Champions League trophy last season, Bastian Schweinsteiger, continued his return from injury off the bench. Alongside him on the sidelines was the man who recently set a new Bundesliga record for the most touches in a match, Thiago Alcantara.
Arsenal will take some encouragement from the fact that Franck Ribery will be missing with an injury for the first leg at the Emirates, as will his replacement who scored twice against Freiburg, Xherdan Shaqiri. But, while Ribery was in the running for and bemused not to win the recent Ballon d’Or, Bayern, in contrast to their former tag of “FC Hollywood,” are not based on one or two stars. Rather they are a squad blessed with an extraordinary quality across the board.
Against Arsenal, Guardiola could still field an attacking midfield three of Thomas Muller, Mario Gotze and Arjen Robben. He could also go to a 4-1-4-1 system that he has deployed often this season and make the central midfield even beefier.
Despite cantering to the Bundesliga title, the fact that no player is assured of their place coupled with the tactical experimentation of Guardiola (against Freiburg Robben played the second half as a false nine, while bludgeoning veteran striker Claudio Pizarro operated in behind) surely help explains why Bayern have thus far showed few signs of taking their foot off the gas. And with the return of the glitz of the Champions League and a marquee matchup, there is every possibility that the intensity in the Bavarians’ camp will be ratcheted up further this week.
If Arsenal are to have any chance of keeping their opponents in check then they will have to match that intensity from the off. One of Arsenal’s best performances of the season came when they scored two goals in the opening 15 minutes to cap a riveting all-action start to their victory over Napoli in the Champions League group stage.
In recent weeks, that has seemed like a distant memory. Against Southampton last month they could have been far more than just the one goal behind at the break. Of course, they were incredibly 4-0 down against Liverpool inside 20 minutes at Anfield, while they could easily have found themselves in a similar hole against the same opponents this weekend. In between, only former striker Robin van Persie’s poor finish failed to punish another dozy start by the Gunners against Manchester United.
Against Bayern a similar beginning could well lead to the tie being put out of reach, as it effectively was when the two sides met at the same stage of last season’s Champions League and a dominant Bayern raced into a 2-0 lead at the Emirates.
With Flamini in the side and fresh from the assurance of Saturday’s victory, Arsenal should not prove so brittle this time around. And going forward they have the players to cause a Bayern defense that their goals-against column suggests is more commanding than the reality due to how little their opponents see the ball. If Mesut Ozil continues his encouraging performances of the past two games and Arsenal utilize the kind of thrust from midfield that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain provided on Saturday then they should get on the score-sheet.
Yet, the archaic away-goals rule means that at home, not conceding is more important than scoring. And, given Bayern’s wealth of attacking options and the large amount of possession they are likely to enjoy, it is simply hard to envisage them not exposing the vulnerabilities in Arsenal’s defense. The tie may remain alive after the first leg, but only just.
Prediction: Arsenal 1-2 Bayern Munich
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.