Arsenal’s European adventures come to their climax this evening in Bavaria, the damage of the first leg defeat surely too much to overcome in the Allianz Arena. There is bullishness in the air with the manager and players seeking to convince that the task of retrieving a two-goal deficit is not beyond them. Of course it isn’t, it’s just very unlikely. I have just re-read last season’s preview of the same fixture and the same positive fatalism is in the air as then. Arsenal spurned the opportunity to take a lead into the second leg, as a missed penalty and red card contrived to hand their opponents the advantage. For all of the cocksureness and bravado of the yesterday’s post about the FA Cup, the opposite must be true of the Champions League. We have no hope of winning it; there is a fine line between optimism and stupidity.
As much as I love the optimism from the players, expecting to prove Joe Strummer’s assertion right is a step too far. For starters, last season we caught Bayern on the hop; they expected to cruise through the tie and win comfortably based on the first leg. No such surprise element this time around. Admittedly we are in better form than last time and confidence should be high following Saturday’s win over Everton but I am not convinced that will make any tangible difference.
This time, the situation is slightly different. Arsenal scoring will make Bayern a little nervous knowing a second will level the tie and put them at risk of extra time or an away goals exit. That would a different kind of pressure to bear on the Germans but you keep coming back to the same feeling; it’s a tall order for the visitors to extract that sort of result from this situation. A better way of looking at it is the match is an opportunity to build confidence ahead of some tough Premier League fixtures. Indeed, I would argue that Arsenal are in a no-lose situation from that point of view. Exiting the Champions League is expected, anything which makes a fight of it is good for morale. A hammering doesn’t matter as much as it did in the Camp Nou; we have nothing to defend and thus mentally, a part of us is prepared for what we perceive as the inevitable.
That’s the lot of the fan. We can be pessimistically optimistic. The players professionally positive; its how this relationship works.
Arsène believes that overturning the two-goal deficit would rank as the best result in his career in European matches; it would rank as one of the club’s best as well, such is the improbability. Putting pressure on the referee for fairness won’t do him any harm and is not surprising given events of the first leg. It’s up to the players to avoid putting themselves in the position where the official has to make such decisions. Whilst there is still some exasperation at Robben’s fall in the award of the penalty in the first leg, how he had found space behind the Arsenal defence without being flagged offside, is as much a concern. The back four had been out-thought and left Wojciech Szczesny was exposed by the visitors attack. Defensive discipline is going to be crucial tonight; scoring twice is a tall enough order, adding more into that equation is asking for trouble.
Going into a run of strong Premier League fixtures, it must have been tempting for the manager to field a weakened team this evening to allow the players the chance to rest and recover from the weekend’s FA Cup exertions. He appears to have avoided that temptation and the squad for tonight’s match seems stronger than the one which made the same journey twelve months ago. There is an element of continuity with Lukasz Fabianski continuing in goal due to Wojciech Szczesny’s suspension and the question for Wenger is whether Laurent Koscielny is sufficiently recovered to take a risk on his fitness. Whether that is a risk worth taking is where Arsène is paid to make the decisions. Personally, knowing the games which lie in wait, I would omit the French international entirely with it being entirely preferable that he be fit for the longer term.
With Kieran Gibbs out, the back four faces an inevitable reshuffle. For a few minutes at the end of a cup-tie, I am sure Carl Jenkinson felt comfortable at left back. For ninety minutes in a Champions League match, the versatile reliability of Bacary Sagna is surely a better option?
Other than that, there is not much cause for change from Saturday. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s directness and willingness to run from deep caused Everton no end of problems; a repeat of that tonight would be most welcome. Despite being in good form, I would try to replicate that on the left and drop Santi Cazorla to the bench, replacing him Lukas Podolski. With Sagna behind him, the German would most likely receive the necessary ‘encouragement’ to work hard defensively, as well as being supremely motivated to produce a memorable performance in his homeland. As Mesut Özil, let’s just say I doubt he has any issues with motivation this morning.
It leaves the starting line-up:
Fabianski; Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Sagna; Flamini, Arteta; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Özil, Podolski; Giroud
For all of the bullishness of the FA Cup, that is noticeable by its absence this morning. For some it is a defence mechanism against the inevitable, for others it is recognition of the reality. As with last season, I genuinely have no expectations of progressing to the last eight but with last season in mind, a good performance will boost the remainder of this campaign.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.