Friday, March 15, 2013

Bayern Munich 0 Arsenal 2 (2nd leg of Round of Last 16 in Champions League)

We nearly made the "mission impossible" possible. While the media are keen to remind us that another season will end trophy-less for the eighth successive year, we are quite happy with how bravely our players fought for an unlikely comeback. The impressive win against the last season's Champions League finalists and current Bundesliga leaders proved that we deserved to be in Europe's elite league. Although Arsenal failed to find the net one more time to go through to the next round, they went out of the competition, holding their heads high.

Pre-match mood couldn't have been gloomier for Arsenal fans with more unnerving news unfolded on the day, as if the media hadn't tormented us and Arsene Wenger enough this season. First of all, Wenger's decision to rest Wojciech Szczesny caused a stir among the fans. Wenger explained his decision by stating that the young No. 1 needed a breather after a number of games he played under severe scrutiny. Most of the media interpreted this as the young keeper being dropped because of his recent errors, especially the one that led to the Gunners' exit from the FA Cup, while some fans took the word "rest" at face value and protested Wenger's decision as they saw no reason why the first-choice keeper should need a rest. At Playa Flamenca Arsenal Supporters Club, we feared the worst at the news that Lukasz Fabianski, aka Flappy-hand-ski, was likely to stand in for his compatriot. As it turned out, we must admit that his performance surpassed our expectations.

The most malicious rumour which went around on the papers earlier that day was that Arsene Wenger was expected to field a weakened team, resting key players ahead of Saturday's league game against Swansea. Supporters, including celebrity fans, such as Piers Morgan and Ian Poulter, expressed their anger and disappointment with the alleged team selections. The Telegraph even posted an online poll asking readers whether Wenger was right to field a weakened team. The narrow majority of voters were against it, while the rest of them showed their understanding and a realistic point of view that it would make sense to prioritise the league game. And the truth? Arsenal's starting line-up included Theo, Santi, and Per, all the key players that the media thought Wenger was going to rest (picking Koscielny or Vermaelen ahead of Mertesacker may be called rotation, but I am not quite sure if that qualifies as "resting a key player", though).

In fact, Wenger only made forced changes, apart from one surprise omission. Santi Cazorla continued on the left flank in the absence of Lukas Podolski, who have been struggling with an ankle problem. Earlier on that day, the newspaper reports suggested that Juventus and Atletico Madrid were prepared to offer £15mn for the German striker as he seems to have fallen out of favour with Arsene Wenger due to his poor work rate (Poor work rate? Poldi offers more cover for a left-back than Gervinho, Arshavin, or even Santi does). However, in this case, only the German international's injury seems to have kept him out of the squad. Tomas Rosicky replaced Jack Wilshere in an advanced central midfielder role. The Englishman was ruled out for three weeks through a bruised ankle. Kieran Gibbs started for the first time since the end of January in the place of Nacho Monreal who was cup-tied. The above changes were more or less in line with expectations, after the heartening news about Gibbs' return, but it came as a surprise that Thomas Vermaelen was dropped to the bench, which gave Laurant Koscielny a starting place alongside Per Mertesacker. The Belgian was regarded as an automatic starter because of the armband, but the media believe that this season's dip in his form has finally prompted Wenger to drop the captain from the starting XI.

The only negative from this match was that we fell one goal short of going through to the next round. The final whistle should have seen us and our players celebrating a massive victory, but instead, it was met by a relief from the home side and cheers from the home crowd. We cannot help thinking ifs and buts. If we hadn't conceded the third goal at the Emirate, a 2-0 victory would have been enough to see us through. We should have played at home like we did this night. If Gervinho or Giroud had converted that clear-cut chance, a 3-0 win would have sent us to the quarter-finals. If a second goal had come 10 minutes earlier, panicked Bayern defence might have given in under pressure.

However, as Mikel Arteta, captain on the night, said, there are a number of positives to take from this game. First and foremost, beating the Bundesliga's run-away leaders 2-0 on their home soil was a feat in its right own right and it should give our players confidence, which has been an issue this season. Bayern Munich had conceded only 10 goals at their home ground this season before Arsenal's visit. Hopefully, the Gunners can take the momentum into the remaining league games as we still have a Champions League spot to play for.

Secondly, our defenders answered critics with their calm display. The two young full-backs were superb. They kept Bayern's skillful and tricky wide players, Muller and Robben, at bay. The two centre-backs obviously rehearsed well during the 10-day interval since the north London derby defeat, leaving no space between them. The tight defence meant that Bayern were reduced to shooting from outside the box. Our well-organised and composed defence was a big positive from this game. Bayern Munich were top-scorers in this season's competition, going into this game, and this was the first time they failed to score in this campaign. Our defenders should take courage from a clean sheet against one of the best teams in the world.

Arsene Wenger said they would have a go without being silly. His gameplan was spot on and the team executed it well. They started strongly and got the first goal inside three minutes. The early goal gave the team a belief that they could pull off an unlikely turnaround, as well as surprising a confident home side. However, we didn't take a gung-ho approach to this game as some journalists suspected. We kept it tight at the back. As long as we didn't concede, there was still a chance to overcome the 3-1 deficit from the first leg.

If we were to go out, which looked most certain prior to the game, we had to go out in a positive way and we did exactly that. Any humiliating result or weak performance would have had a detrimental effect on our run-in. We didn't find fluency in our attack in this game, but an excellent team display earned an impressive 2-0 win on German soil. The lads did us proud.

Player ratings

Fabianski: 7 
Made some smart saves. Apart from a sloppy pass to Jenkinson, he didn't put his foot wrong. He demonstrated authority which Szczesny lacks, when he came off the line to claim the ball with such a momentum that took Mertesacker off the ground. Very promising performance in his first start of the season for the first team.

Jenkinson: 9
We think the 20-year-old right back had a blinding game. Made a match-saving stop. He put in a strong defensive performance and made a superb cross to Giroud who nearly converted it.

Mertesacker: 7

Koscielny: 7
Arsenal fans' chosen Man of the Match (according to the's Fans Online Poll) perhaps on the strength of his goal and solid defensive display.

Gibbs: 8
Encouraging performance on his return since the Liverpool game at the end of January. He didn't look like he had been away. If anything, he seemed to have made a progress from where he left off 6 weeks ago. He kept quiet Philip Lahm, who was influential in the first leg. We don't mind the same back five playing against Swansea this weekend, but Gibbs are likely to be sidelined again as Wenger revealed that the Englishman had a minor reaction on his thigh. Monreal should replace him without problem as he has had a nice 2-week rest by then.

Ramsey: 6
Got involved and worked hard, but his passing let him down.

Arteta: 6 
Made an impressive 7 interceptions. Although he was unlucky that the ref's decisions went all against him, he made too many (9) fouls. Especially, his silly fouls disrupted the flow of the game in the final few minutes when we were desperately searching for a tie-decider. The stats were also shocking for the usually accomplished passer, with a meagre 78% of passing success rate. In fact, the entire team's passing completion rate (76%) was far below their standard. The whole team worked hard to win the ball only to lose it through subsequent poor passing.

Rosicky: 7
His incisive pass found Walcott, who set up an early goal for Giroud. He seemed to have lacked understanding with his team-mates at times, but hopefully there will be his best to come from him.

Cazorla: 6
Had a relatively quiet game.

Walcott: 6
Provided an assist for Giroud. Looked dangerous.

Giroud: 6
Scored the opening goal, but missed a couple of good chances. We want to see more commitment on attacking from him.


Oxlade-Chamberlain: 6
One of the double 72nd-minute substitutions for Ramsey and Walcott. The double substitutions clearly gave the team an attacking momentum. I know that passing is not really the strength of his game, but passing success rate of 46% is appalling.

Gervinho: 6
The other one of the double substitutions. Had a glorious chance to score in 78th minute after dancing through Bayern defenders into the box only to trickle a shot just wide.

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