Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger believes his side has the quality and mental strength to overcome the challenge of Bayern Munich ahead of the first-leg of their Champions League Round-of-16 tie.
There is once more a swirling air of negativity hanging over the Emirates after a shock FA Cup upset at home to Championship side Blackburn Rovers on Saturday. Wenger has received criticism for rotating his lineup ahead of the clash with Bayern and the mild-mannered Frenchman gave an unusually fiery press conference on Monday.
Despite the growing question marks over the direction of the club and his role in it, Wenger is unrelenting in his belief in his players.
“I have the experience to know it's played over 180 minutes,” he said, according to UEFA’s Web site. “We must put in our head that we have 180 minutes to qualify – we must not rush our game. It's important to play to win the competition and at some stage we'll therefore come up against good teams. I trust our quality, I trust our spirit and I trust our mental strength—so see you tomorrow!
“It's important we play with belief; we're on a good run overall. The fact is that we've lost two of our last 11 league games. Nil-nil at home is a very good result in the Champions League knockout, but we're an offensive team and we'll try to go forward and score goals.”
Scoring goals may well be difficult against a Bayern Munich side that has yet to concede a goal in five games since returning from the winter break. The Bavarians have won all of those matches and hold a 15-point lead in the Bundesliga.
With the league title already looking all-but in the bag, Bayern can focus on trying to make amends for their dramatic Champions League final defeat on home ground last May. Coach Jupp Heynckes, believes the failures of last season—they also finished as runners up in the league and German cup—have motivated his side to a new level this campaign.
“I think last season we had a great season but with Bayern if you don't win a title then it's not enough,” he explained. “This season we've changed in defense and what's important to me is that every player must learn to defend and attack; every player is a defender and an attacker.
“Two years without a trophy at Bayern—we have to do something about that. The players have that hunger and that motivation for success and that's very important moving forward. We've shown this already in the league, in the cup and in the Champions League – that we have this desire and motivation. The Champions League is special because you play at a higher level so you need even more.”
Bayern Munich are clear favorites, even for the first-leg at the Emirates. They are odds on to get the victory with both Bet 365 and Paddy Power, 9/10 with the former and 10/11 with the latter.
Arsenal are 16/5 to take a lead back to Munich with Bet 365 and 3/1 with Paddy Power.
The draw is 14/5 with Bet 365 and 13/5 with Paddy Power.
In terms of the tie it is very hard to look past Bayern Munich. Their midfield trio of Javi Martinez, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos is up there with the very best in the world right now and Arsenal’s midfield will have to play to their absolute maximum to try and stop them dominating.
Realistically, even at the Emirates, Bayern are likely to have control of the center of the pitch. Only Barcelona had a higher average percentage of possession throughout the group stages, leaving Arsenal trialing in their wake.
Not only are Bayern good on the ball but, as Heynckes suggested, they are now far better without it and their pressing will disrupt Arsenal’s rhythm. Jack Wilshere’s ability to hold the ball and make inroads even when under pressure will be key if Arsenal are to be able to gain a foothold.
A further problem for the Gunners is the lack of a recognized left-back, with Kieran Gibbs still injured and Nacho Monreal cup-tied. Thomas Vermaelen is likely to move across, but the Belgian is going to need plenty of help form Lukas Podolski in negating the dual threat of Thomas Muller and Philipp Lahm down that side.
Perhaps the main area of optimism for Arsenal is that the absence of Holger Badstuber and Jerome Boateng from the center of Bayern’s defense, means the presence of Daniel van Buyten. The veteran Belgian has never been the most mobile and even less so now. While Theo Walcott’s direct opponent will be the excellent and pacy left-back David Alaba, if Walcott can take advantages of the Austrian’s forward runs and get one-on-one with Van Buyten then Arsenal could get some real joy.
Arsenal could well spend most of the first-leg on the back foot, but, in similar fashion to the home encounter in the quarterfinal with Barcelona three years ago, the Emirates crowd and Walcott’s pace could see the Gunners at least keep the tie alive for the return.
Arsenal 2-2 Bayern Munich
The First-Leg of the UEFA Champions League round-of-16 tie between Arsenal and Bayern Munich will kick-off at 2.45 p.m. ET.