Bayern Munich 0 – 2 Arsenal
Agg: 3 – 3; Bayern win on away goals rule
0 – 1 Giroud (3)
0 – 2 Koscielny (85)
Arsenal came within a whisker of achieving the result they required to progress to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. As with twelve months earlier, the performance in the second leg was a complete contrast to the first; everything missing then was shown in abundance last night and the squad deserves credit for the recovery, the manner of play and individual performances. Continuing that will stand them in good stead for the rest of the season and ought to be the springboard for a run that puts pressure on those above them in domestic competition.
The goals were book ends of the match, inbetween the perfect start from Giroud and the finely placed header of Koscielny, Arsenal relied on their defence and were indebted to the returning Lukasz Fabianski for a clean sheet. Even when Bayern went close, you sensed that the Pole had it covered. Last night, a vocal organiser of the defence, his handling was assured; totally at odds with the last time he was seen in an Arsenal shirt, his demeanour reflected a man shorn of confidence. Not enough to change the manager’s mind about who his first choice goalkeeper is but drawing praise from Arsène nonetheless.
If they were going to achieve the impossible, an early goal was crucial; this time, Arsenal obeyed their manager’s plan to the letter. Aaron Ramsey drove into the Bayern half, enticing an equisite first time pass from Tomas Rosicky to Theo Walcott on the right whose growing maturity as a forward was reflected in the sharp, low cross to the far post where Olivier Giroud was lurking. The attack was everything good about Arsenal’s game; running at the opposition, precise passing and purposeful attacking. Any combination of these things has been missing on a regular basis this season.
Calm heads in defence were required to induce nervousness in Bayern. The Bundesliga leaders responded, Kroos carbon copy effort of his goal in the first leg was confidently dealt with by Fabianski, the Pole anticipating what was to follow as soon as the German midfielder received the pass. Bayern pressed forward, Robben flashed a shot wide, Muller slashed a shot into the side-netting; a sign of embarrassment at missing or acknowledgement that Fabianski was proving a hurdle too high in claiming of a corner? Arsenal were absorbing pressure, waiting for the break to come. It nearly arrived as Walcott – subdued through lack of possession and tracking back – tried to find Giroud once more but this time the chance eluded Arsenal.
The interval arrived with half the job done, the words of George Graham echoed down the years from the balmy night at Anfield. The clean sheet at half-time requiring two second half goals to finish the job.
Bayern emerged strongly at the start of the second half, Robben shot deflected wide, Kroos went closer, Gustavo the same. Despite some heart in the mouth defending and casually ceded possession, Arsenal remained in the tie and Fabianski with relatively few saves to make. And when he was needed, the Pole stood firm to deny Robben. As much as he needed confidence for himself, Fabianski was giving the appearance of being confident as much a weapon in the goalkeeper’s arsenal as the real thing.
As time passed, Arsenal needed a goal of their own to exert more pressure as their hosts resorted to blatant timewasting in an attempt to see the tie out. That moment arrived; Cazorla slipped the ball to Gervinho, the Ivorian producing a sublime dragback to find space but in beating the advancing Neuer, guided the ball agonisingly wide of the goal. A Mickey Thomas moment after 75 minutes or so on that Anfield night.
To keep Arsenal on their toes, Muller spurned a final opportunity for Bayern to kill the tie but with hope heading toward the exit, Santi Cazorla curled his corner to meet Laurent Koscielny’s perfectly timed run, the ball arrowing into the bottom corner beyond Neuer’s despairing dive. With just shy of ten minutes to go, Bayern went into timewasting overdrive beginning with the scamble in the back of the net, yellow cards lighting the Bavarian sky from the nervous Czech referee.
There was much to be proud of in terms of the performance. Elements which had been missing during various parts of the season appeared en masse last night. Key to it was the spirit emphasized by the manager post-match. He noted that the back four would be reshuffled for Saturday but surely not the central pairing which has been Arsenal’s best combination this season. The Keystone Cops moments are still there but Franco-German axis seems more solid than when you put the Belgian in place of one. Is the burden of captaincy weighing too heavy on Thomas Vermaelen?
The fight displayed, the harrying and pressing has been missed previously. Sitting deeper suits the back four but also affords the pacey forward line and quick thinking midfield more space to work in on the counter. Is this the template for the future, reverting back to the manner of play at the start of the season away from home? Whatever happens going forward, all that was asked of the Arsenal players last night was for a performance which restored pride. They very nearly achieved more than that; maybe Arsène needs to build an imaginary wall for the players to put at their backs for the rest of the season. They responded to the low expectations with a performance that stands as a marked contrast to a lot of this season.