Arsenal travel to Munich looking to accomplish something no other side has done in the Champions League era: come back from a two-goal deficit after the home leg. Against one of the tournament favorites, it is a daunting task. And there are serious questions as to whether even Arsenal’s manager believes it is possible.
Arsene Wenger has already confirmed that key man Jack Wilshere will miss the game as he is given a few weeks off to rest an ankle problem that is a matter of “prevention,” while Wojciech Szczesny has been left at home for a “breather” with Lukasz Fabianski set to come in for his first appearance of the season.
They are hardly the decisions of a manager viewing a match as the biggest of their season—which it would undoubtedly have been had the first-leg scoreline given Arsenal a realistic chance of making the quarterfinals.
Instead, it appears Wenger has already got one eye on Saturday’s encounter with Swansea, a match that perversely may be prioritized because it could be crucial in determining their participation in next season’s competition.
Of course, the club will understandably want to take precautions with Wilshere, who has not long since returned form 17 months out with an ankle injury—it must be mentioned, though, that Wilshere’s current problem is to the other ankle.
But can there really be any doubt that Wilshere would have been in the starting lineup had Arsenal been, say, taking a 2-1 lead to Munich, rather than a 3-1 deficit?
There is plenty of logic to take Szczesny out of the firing line, with the young Pole struggling at times this season to live up to the initial potential he showed when he burst into the first team. Again, though, it seems difficult to believe that Wenger would throw in a reserve goalkeeper who has been absent through for much of the season and has not played for the Gunners in more than a year for a match of critical importance.
What’s more, Lukas Podolski and Bacary Sagna have been left at home with niggling injuries, while the Guardian reports that Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott could be given a rest.
It is a truly depressing state of affairs for Arsenal fans, who believe their team should be competing with Europe’s best.
While, if indeed Wenger is already viewing qualifying for next season’s Champions League as a priority over battling the odds to stay in the current edition, it is in some ways a disheartening dose of pragmatism for the romantics, it is difficult to argue with that viewpoint.
At the Emirates, with virtually a full squad to choose from and an impassioned home crowd cheering them on for their biggest match of the season, Arsenal were thoroughly outplayed and outclassed by Bayern Munich. It was a humbling experience.
There is nothing to suggest that Arsenal can do what only one other side has done in the 58 year history of the European Cup and rebound from a two-goal deficit traveling away from home.
The Gunners need to score at least three goals in the Allianz Arena, something no side has managed this season—they have only conceded two goals at home twice. In the Bundesliga they have conceded a total of 10 goals, in 25 games. That is, by some the distance, the lowest of any side in Europe’s top five leagues.
Admittedly, Bayern conceded two goals at home just this past weekend to lowly Fortuna Dusseldorf. But the Bavarians still came out on top and, with a lead of 20 points in the Bundesliga it would certainly be understandable if they are taking their foot off the gas, as it appeared.
Bayern appear on a mission this in the Champions League, especially, this season to make up for last seasons’ disappointments. Not only did they finish second in the league and runners-up in the cup, but most agonizing of all they lost the Champions League final in their home ground on penalties after thoroughly outplaying Chelsea.
To watch them at the Emirates was to see a side that was not only playing scintillatingly with the ball, but that, crucially, were also working phenomenally hard without it. It is the type of pressing that Arsenal have dabbled in for the past few seasons but have never fully committed to.
After racing into a two-goal lead at the Emirates, there was also a sense that Bayern were playing within themselves, happy to diffuse the game in the knowledge that the damage had already been done. Even when Arsenal scored early in the second half and threatened to make a rousing recovery spurred on by an awakened home support, Bayern regrouped and struck a third.
Without Jack Wilshere the gulf between Arsenal’s midfield and that of Bayern's, even without the suspended Bastian Schweinsteiger will be even more apparent.
Bayern are unlikely to be overly concerned with putting on a show at the Allianz Arena, rather they are could well be content to take any sting out of the match and take their opportunities when and if they present themselves.
Don’t count on it being a classic, with both sides—long before the end—likely to accept their respective fates that were established within 21 minutes of the first leg.
Prediction: Bayern Munich 2-1 Arsenal
The second leg of the UEFA Champions League round-of-16 tie will kick-off from the Allianz Arena at 3.45 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by the Fox Soccer Channel. Viewers in the U.K. can watch the match on Sky Sports 2.