The Champions League returns tonight with Bayern Munich in town. As Arsène rightly put it yesterday, it is impossible to argue against them being considered the best team in the world at the moment even though the 2010 Barcelona remain the best he has faced. You sense a lingering “so far” was needed to qualify his statement. Steamrollering their domestic league whilst being reigning World and European champions indicates their form. They aren’t unbeatable as Manchester City proved in the group stage but that was a difficult match to assess; Bayern had qualified already with the result only mattering to their visitors. But it punctures the air of invincibility, even if it is but minor pin prick providing a very slow release.
Arsenal have to buck recent history to progress to the quarter-finals. Poor performances in the first legs over the past two years have undermined exceptional wins in the returns. To this day it is still unfathomable how Milan did not concede the fourth and fifth goals whilst pondering how the outcome would have changed twelve months ago had the second been scored twenty minutes earlier, has whiled away more than a few minutes. The damage was already done by humiliations weeks earlier and a repeat of these scenarios must be avoided if the tie is to be won.
The win in Munich is widely credited with being the inspiration for the run of results at the end of last season and the form of this campaign. Sunday’s victory over Liverpool suggests that the recent wobble in belief is being cured, albeit slowly. In truth the squad has been out of sorts since the trip to Southampton. Crucially, they had until Anfield, been able to grind out results, to win ugly or draw in situations where previous seasons would have tasted defeat. The only lingering concern is that these performances have seen the side make slow starts, cede early possession which as we found a year ago will prove costly against Bayern. Arsène is acutely aware of this problem,
It is important [to make a fast start] because every minute counts in a game of this stature and we are conscious of that and we’ll try to start very strongly. We have big home strengths recently because we don’t give goals away and that will certainly be vitally important in this tie.
Whilst he is right to focus on not conceding, it is disingenuous to claim this a strength. Szczesny outwitted van Persie but Sturridge should have scored at least once on Sunday; it was no more than poor finishing. The sense is that Arsenal escaped rather than solid defensive work being at play. Once the team shakes the cobwebs, there is little complaint; the whole team defends and that is a genuine strength. Diligence, work-rate, these are commendable attributes for the squad but they should not mask deficiencies.
Tonight will see a few changes from the weekend, I would expect Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna to return to compliment the central pairing of Mertesacker and Koscielny in front of Wojciech Szczesny. Midfield once more causes the manager to think about his team selection. Mikel Arteta is suspended so Mathieu Flamini will remain in the centre. With the attacking outlets further ahead, Wenger will be looking for some snap and hard work from others. For that reason, Jack Wilshere is likely to return to the starting line-up, injury permitting. The England international has been criticised for his recent form, particularly for the United match with disgruntlement at his own performance manifesting in petulance. As Vincent Kompany observed last night, refereeing standards in the Champions League are more pernickerty than domestically and Wilshere will need to contain his opinions and frustrations.
It is attack where the telling decision will be made. Assuming that Olivier Giroud’s dalliances have not sapped his strength, the question is whether Lukas Podolski or Tomas Rosicky joins the dynamic duo of Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil. Logic dictates that the Czech will be preferred, Wenger has made no secret of his belief in the midfielder and quite rightly so. However, is it a case of too much familiarity in that trio, smaller, creative midfielders with similar styles that Bayern may find more straightforward to neutralise in an attacking sense? I also believe that including Podolski from the outset offers more defensive cover for Kieran Gibbs. It might be Cazorla is the one to make way but given recent form, it seems unlikely. Of course, if Wilshere is injured the situation changes but somehow it strikes me that Wenger will retain confidence and faith in the quintet that steadied a rocking ship against United.
That is harsh on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain whose recent contributions should not be dismissed but as a learning curve, he is still on a sharp upward trajectory following the injury suffered on the opening day of the season. The only concern I have about the side is that natural width is missing and on Sunday, that provided a useful outlet when the defence was under pressure. And of course the route for the winning goal.
It means the line-up will probably be:
Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Wilshere, Flamini, Rosicky; Cazorla, Özil; Giroud
Jack Wilshere was quick to point out that tonight is as much about not conceding a goal as winning. The combination of the two puts the victors in a strong position, inducing some caution for the second leg but that is too far in the future with the standard of the opposition dictating that this tie be taken ninety minutes at a time.
Can Arsenal win tonight? Of course, a bloodied nose was issued to Barcelona in the home legs at the turn of the decade. Arsenal were well-beaten in the returns but that is the past, the squad is in a ‘better place’ this season than then. It comes down to whether they really believe that victory is possible, how they react to any adversity. We won’t know until – if – it happens. I prefer the ‘if’ option. Equally, chances tonight will be at a premium and Olivier Giroud will need to be ready to seize on those moments. It’s another reason to include Podolski, offering another goalscoring option, certainly a more obvious outlet than Cazorla, Rosicky or Özil in that respect. We shall see.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.