When Arsenal entered the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in February 2006, they had long exited the FA Cup with a single goal defeat at the hands of Bolton Wanderers. Three weeks earlier, Wigan had shocked everyone by knocking the club out of the League Cup semi-finals on away goals. Sitting fifth in the table, they trailed fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur by five points, a further five behind Liverpool in third whilst leaders Chelsea had the comfort of another fifteen on top of that. It was February and the title had long been out of reach. It was deemed a hopeless position, coming into the tie on thee back of two wins in the previous eight games.
Real Madrid had won the previous six games and were built up as unbeatable, invincible. Los Galacticos.
Tonight Bayern Munich arrive at The Emirates, runaway leaders of the Bundesliga, one defeat domestically all season, unbeaten away from home, with a goal difference of fifty to compliment their fifteen point advantage. Unbeatable. And yet they lost in the group phase at BATE Borisov in the second game and drew with Valencia in the Mestalla.
Anything is possible.
Whether or not glory beckons depends on which Arsenal turns up; the flaccid, timid side of some recent first halves or the rampant tearaways of most second periods? The former and the game could be gone before you know it; the latter could have those who’ve written the side off before a ball is kicked in anger, munching on their words. I wonder if Arsène might be inclined to this being his team talk, “Gentlemen, we are four goals down from the first leg; if you believe you cannot retrieve the deficit entirely, remember Milan, how we nearly did it. Fly my beauties, reach for the stars and the universe shall be yours“. OK, so the last sentence ran through my head in the voice of Montgomery Burns but you get the drift.
As the media obsess over public displays of anger and others pontificate on his future, did Arsène himself chuckle last night? Was this all a calculated response, a planned outrage to fire up the players? It struck me as very convenient in its timing and the reaction garnered certainly for an astute man, would be exactly that which he would have wished for. The PR equivalent of rope-a-dope, convincing in its delivery, designed to snap anything other than determination to win out of the players? Simply put, We’re not having that, no-one talks to the boss like that. We owe him a big performance. With Mikel Arteta sat alongside him when it happened, you can be sure the venom in Arsène’s delivery would have been relayed to the squad; the hurt and anger, with the right touch of bewilderment at it all.
They tell me that Arsène isn’t that calculating but this is football management, where a lot of the game is won inside players’ heads. He would not be the first to use such tactics, he will not be the last. He certainly is ruthless enough. And this train of thought will be careering through the minds of the coaches of Bayern.
Maybe the ire was genuine and I’m too cynical. Fair play to him in either circumstance.
And a reaction is what he needs. Of the starting line-up on Saturday, it is hard to look beyond Szczesny, Vermaelen, Koscielny and Arteta being involved at kick-off tonight. The initial plan was probably to play the Belgian at left back but suggestions from Wenger yesterday that his French centre back is struggling to be fit would put Sagna on the left, Jenkinson in his normal position. That could be swapped but the more experienced player would probably be better suited to handling the pressures of playing on the wrong side of the pitch, especially against experienced wingers such as Ribery and Robben.
The cup defeat against Blackburn will have stung pride, you could see that in the reaction of Walcott and Wilshere at the final whistle. Some of the other players may not have understood the impact of the FA Cup on the psyche of the English football fan; they will have understood the boos at the final whistle. Whilst footballers freely admit to operating under the premis of There but for the Grace of God go I, that shallowness has limits. Few of the regular starting XI will be concerned about their immediate place in the side, they will be keen and eager to consolidate their own position. Selfishness can reap benefits for the greater good.
And for others, the motivation will be proving doubters wrong. Making a point that having been discarded, they are good enough and more patience shown. Lukas Podolski’s spell in Bavaria was not successful by any stretch of the imagination and the German international has displayed enough on social media to suggest that this evening is an opportunity to prove detractors wrong, is not something he will want to waste.
The line-up for this evening I expect to take to the field is:
Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen (or Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Sagna); Wilshere, Cazorla, Arteta; Walcott, Giroud, Podolski
The quandry for Arsène is whether he believes Bayern can be undone by pace. Walcott playing centrally offers that option, dropping Giroud to the bench for a late run out if needed. To accommodate, Oxlade-Chamberlain would come in on the right. However, the French striker has been effective in the central position recently and it seems unlikely that the manager will tinker with the line-up.
German sides do not have the happiest of records at Arsenal. Borussia Monchengladbach and Schalke are the only ones who have left with victories whilst Bayern forced the only draw a decade or so ago. The reverse holds true in Germany but that is not the issue tonight. As Arsène pointed out, a goalless draw is not a bad result tonight. The only bad result is one that leaves Arsenal chasing victory in Bavaria in a fortnight’s time.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.