ARSENAL’S LONG WAIT FOR A CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MAY YET BE EVEN LONGER

Mario+Mandzukic+Arsenal+v+FC+Bayern+Muenchen+SDbcDRDYXi5l
Arsenal concede a third away goal to Bayern Munich * image courtesy of zimbio *

The noise was deafening as the crowd was silenced. Cheers turned into jeers as the boos filled the air.

Toni Kroos struck, Thomas Muller pounced and Mario Mandzukic, rather fortuitously, looped it in. Not even the head of Lukas Podolski could save face for a team that for most of the 90 minutes looked to have lost its head. It meant that the only ones flying at The Emirates were the Bavarians.

In his match programme notes prior to Arsenal’s Champions League Round of 16 first leg tie against Bayern Munchen, Arsene Wenger called for the Arsenal fans to believe in his team as they would draw inspiration from Chelsea’s unlikely run in the Champions League last year that had famously culminated in an unlikely win, on penalties, against Bayern, at the home of the Bavarians, in the Champions League Final.

That call, to say the least, was not heeded. Ironically so, when Kroos scored on seven minutes, it seemed to signify the full number of seasons for which Arsenal have gone trophyless, and it was one minute away from signifying the number of years they will have gone at the end of this season if this competition is not won.

As such, blame has been heaped on Wenger, even though the man who had appealed for inspiration from Chelsea, seemed to attempt to replicate it.

By starting Santi Cazorla on the right, he looked to mirror Roberto Di Matteo’s placement of Juan Mata on that side in that crucial semi final home tie against Barcelona last season. The purpose; a  creative presence drifting in from wide that can, at the same time, congest the central area so that Bayern do not get as much space in midfield when they got it. In theory, it should have worked, but it instead ended up stifling Arsenal’s creativity, as the the midfield trio of Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere do not have the same creative ability as Cazorla. (Or were too deep to have such sort of impact.)

In the central striking role, Theo Walcott started ahead of Olivier Giroud. A move of bold proportions considering how useful Giroud’s height can be, but one that makes sense when you consider the Frenchman’s abilities on the ground. Much too often, in their previous game against Blackburn in the FA Cup, Giroud, as he has done all season, looked to play in his teammates with one touch flick-ons. Frustratingly, these flick-ons did not come off, and instead kept ceding possession to the opposition.

Giroud, it seems, is better with his head than he is with his feet, and the thought of continually ceding possession to a team of the stature of Bayern probably prompted Wenger to start with the pace of Walcott – at the very least, this forced Bayern to not play with a high line as they were wary of the Englishman’s pace.

The most telling of inclusions though has to be that of Lukas Podolski. It is common knowledge, not least in his home country, that Poldi does not perform on the big stage, or is choked by it. His matches this season against the likes of Manchester United and Manchester City have seen him wear a cloak of invisibility and ineffectivety. Granted, Podolski is a player who plays best with space ahead of him, and grant him that space (as West Ham found out when he notched a hat-trick of assists against them) and he will destroy you.

More tellingly though is the fact that his defensive duties ultimately cost Arsenal the game. Lethargic to track back, he exposed Thomas Vermaelen, to a barrage of attacks from the twin threats of Muller and Philip Lahm.  Podolski’s club captain was thus at the mercy of his international team captain, as Lahm got forward with relative ease.

That produced the most eye-opening statistic of all; all the goals that Arsenal conceded, including the corner for Muller’s goal, came from threats down their left hand channel. As such, Lahm and Muller notched assists each. Bar the goal that he scored, Podolski  had a torrid time, and it was probably Wenger’s worst mistake to start the German against the Germans.

Overall though, apart from the ever courageous Jack Wilshere and the short cameo by Tomas Rosicky, all the Arsenal players failed to rise to the occasion. Fragility and meekness dominated in what is now becoming a run of lack of confidence.

Where does this leave Arsenal then.

For starters it leaves them, as Wenger put it, fighting two battles. The easier of the battles includes a direct confrontation with North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur, for fourth place in the Premier League and a chance at next year’s Champions League campaign. Easier, he terms it, because there is still time left and as has been pointed out, Spurs have a tougher, much trickier run in.

The second battle however is Herculean. It leaves them, as was the case last season, with too much to do to remain in the competition. Going into the Allianz Arena, Arsenal have to win by three clear goals.

Strange things have been done, but none stranger than that. Liverpool may have produced a miracle in Istanbul in 2005, but even they did not win by three clear goals, and had to rely on penalties. Manchester United may have won the tournament at the last gasp in 1999, but that was by one goal. Even last year, Chelsea won at the Allianz, but not by three clear goals.

Deportivo La Coruna overturned a 4-1 deficit over AC Milan in the 2004-2005 campaign, but then, they were at home in the second leg. So too did Chelsea last year, overturning Napoli’s 3-1 advantage; they also were at home in the second leg.

The most Arsenal can draw inspiration from was their own campaign in the 2002-2003 season. In the group stages, Inter Milan had travelled to Highbury, and had escaped with a 3-0 win. The return at the San Siro, sensationally inspired by Thierry Henry ended 5-1 to the Gunners.

Even then though, the context was much different. This was the Group Stages – there was margin for error. Inter also were in a tumultuous period where between travelling to Higbury and hosting the Arsenal had had three different coaches. And it was not as if Inter were particularly high flying in Serie A at the time.

The message is clear. To overcome this, Arsenal must make history. And history is what it will be because in the European Cup’s entire history (1955 to date), only seven teams have ever managed to go through after losing the first leg at home. In order to prevent an eighth consecutive trophy less season, Arsenal, at the very least, must become the eighth.

If however none of the two battles that Wenger speaks of is won, then Arsenal’s quest to become the second London club to claim Europe’s most coveted trophy will have to wait at least another two years.

Edit : The first paragraph has been edited to make the introduction longer.

Edit : The sixth paragraph has been edited to rectify Aaron Ramsey tactical poition, and include Santi Cazorla’s.

Edit : The eighth paragraph has been edited to include Theo Walcott’s threat.

Edit : The 11th paragraph has been edited to include Thomas Muller’s assist.

Edit : The 17th paragraph has been edited to rectify the Champions League season year.

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