Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bayern Munich 1 Arsenal 1 (Last 16 of Champions League)

Arsenal have been written off for any chance of progressing after a 2-0 home defeat three weeks ago and all the goal-scoring stats for Bayern Munich didn't bode well, either. Overturning the two-goal deficit was a mountain to climb. Even optimistic Gooners did not expect their club to qualify prior to the game. So we are not hugely upset, although we are out of the Champions League now officially. We can only take courage from the team's gutsy performance this night.

The media reaction was profoundly mixed. Pundits like Trevor Francis heaped their plaudits for the Gunners' gallant performance, insisting that they can be proud of their effort on the night. On the other hand, anti-Arsenal journalists couldn't help reminding us that the Champions League was another trophy we couldn't win this season and described every aspect of the match with a negative spin on it as if they had been watching a different game.

Before going into our version of events, we start with the team selection as usual. Arsene Wenger made three changes from the side that started in their 4-1 win over Everton in the FA Cup 6th Round. The fit-again Koscielny played alongside Mertesacker in the central defence, while Vermaelen was moved to cover the left-back position in the absence of fit natural left-backs. Nacho Monreal was still struggling with injuries. Good news is that Gibbs' ankle problem seems to be a short-term one as he has a chance to play on Sunday, according to the manager's injury updates prior to this match. Mathieu Flamini was dropped to the bench. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started in the central midfield alongside Mikel Arteta, who missed the first leg through suspension. Lukas Podolski was deployed on the left wing, while Olivier Giroud started in place of Yaya Sanogo who didn't make a trip to Germany due to a foot injury.

The bench looked scarce in number as well as quality. Ryo Miyaichi travelled with the squad only to find himself ineligible due to an administrative mistake, which anti journalists didn't miss the opportunity to include their match reports. Wenger explained it in his post-match conference by stating that the Japanese forward had been removed from the list of players for the Champions League following the boss' decision to loan him out. Third-choice keeper Emiliano Viviano, Carl Jenkinson, and an 18-year-old defender, Issac Haydon sat on the bench as well as Tomas Rosicky, Mathieu Flamini, and Serge Gnabry.

The team selection showed Arsenal's intent to have a go at the reigning champions, but the hosts' pressure from the start did not allow the visitors to exert their attacking prowess. Obviously, the German side had learnt what Arsenal were capable of from last season, or even the opening 15 minutes of the first leg. In the end, we had to defend hard and try to snatch something on the break. Some criticise the attack-oriented set-up for its vulnerability against counter-attack, but we were chasing at least two goals. Wenger's selection made sense. This group of attack-minded players did well to cope with all the pressure from a high-pressing Bayern side and put in a valiant performance until its weakness was exposed. Our most eminent attacking outlet was the Ox. He tried to drive forward from a deep position in midfield whenever he could. If Roy Hodgson was watching him dribbling through four Bayern players, the England midfielder will surely be on the plane to Brazil.

We had to be content with 0-0 at half time as Arsenal spent the majority of the first half on the back foot. In the second half, the parity was finally broken when unmarked Schweinsteiger through the middle met Ribery's square pass from the left-hand channel with a close-range shot. Bayern's goal meant we had to score three goals to qualify. But before even this cruel reality sank in, Podolski equalised for us. The game burst into life. From there anything looked possible to us, Gooners. As we expected, the first goal opened up the game and we looked dangerous, or Bayern's defence looked vulnerable. We created a few chances through the Ox' run down on the left flank and Gnabry's run on the right wing, but the final ball lacked quality.

Whatever the haters say, we think that Arsenal's valiant efforts and determined performance deserved plaudits. There is no shame in a 1-1 draw with the reigning European champions on their home soil. In light of the Bavarian club's recent goal-scoring stats and their dominance in their domestic league, the north London club proved their worth in the Europe's elite competition. Besides, we are still undefeated at the Allianz Arena over the two years. In fact, we are unbeaten in Germany (P6, W3, D3).

What's more important than the opinions of journalists or us fans is the players' take on this game. Obviously, they are disappointed with the fact that they couldn't do enough to get the result they wanted and that they were knocked out of the competition. However, they seemed to have taken heart from the commitment and work rate they put in. The Ox's post-match interview suggested that the 20-year-old had already moved on and looked forward to the north London derby this weekend. With decisive games still to come and 10 games left, we are still in the hunt for the Premier League title. With Manchester City eliminated from the FA Cup competition, we have a great chance of winning the Cup this season to end our nine-year trophy drought. Still fresh in the memory of the same group of players, last season's feat at Bayern Munich spurred them to go on an unbeaten run of 10 games to secure a top-four finish from fifth place 7 points behind Tottenham at this stage of the season. This season, we are third 7 points adrift of the league leaders Chelsea with a game in hand and still in the FA Cup. Hopefully, the Gunners will find confidence and belief in themselves from their battling display this night.

Players ratings

Fabianski: 8
Made a few brilliant saves and a spot-on decision to come out of the box. It was amazing to see the ball spinning on the line after the Polish keeper saved Muller's penalty with his legs. He recovered in time to smother the ball to help us hold onto the 1-1 draw. It would be great if we could keep him at the Club. 

Sagna: 7
His positioning was questionable at times, but then he didn't have a proper right winger to cover him defensively in this game.

Mertesacker: 8
The tower of our defence. Made 3 interceptions and 11 clearances.

Koscielny: 7
Robben is a well-known diver, but he fell for the Dutchman's trick a little too easily. We were shouting in front of the screen at him not to give Robben a chance, but it didn't need anything more than the slightest contact for the Dutchman to collapse in the box.

Vermaelen: 7
Coped well with Bayern's tricky wide players despite playing out of position (we all know that he hates to play there). Encouraging performance.

Areta: 7
Had a decent game as our sole holding midfielder. Made 5 tackles and 1 interception. Given a yellow card, though.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 8
One of big positives from this game is his dynamic performance. Demonstrated his skills, technique, and infectious positivity. Bayern Munich defenders could not cope with him without fouling him. Completed an impressive 10 dribbles before he was substituted by Mathieu Flamini in the 84th minute. He gave 100 percent. His passing success rate was poor at 74% (although the team average was substantially lower than usual at 74%) and probably he should have tracked Schweinsteiger's run as a deep-lying central midfielder. Nonetheless, he looked promising as a box-to-box player.

Cazorla: 7
Worked hard.

Özil: 6
Replaced by Rosicky at half time due to a hamstring injury. 12 passes with a meagre 58% passing success rate. Didn't do enough in this game, but some of the criticisms on him are over the top. Some newspaper articles even suggested that he was withdrawn at half time because of his poor performance and the injury was a cover-up. He made 1 key pass in the fairly quiet first half when the entire team were on the back foot. Also, he delivered a great corner kick, from which Giroud nearly scored. Wenger reckons that the injury is likely to keep the German playmaker on the sidelines for at least a few weeks, which is a huge blow to us. Our injury list is just getting longer and longer.

Podolski: 8
Scored our only goal. Although he fouled Lahm in his run leading to the goal (even Wenger admitted it), it was a superb shot from the sharp shooter. He sprang out of the shell after Bayern's scored a goal and led the attack afterwards.

Giroud: 6
Had a hard time as he was constantly subjected to physical challenges by Dante. 


Rosicky: 7
Came on at half time to replace injured Özil. 

Gnabry: 6
77th-minute substitute for Arteta to provide a fresh pair of legs and increase attacking threats. Got in a great position and made a few good runs, but his finishing let him down.

Flamini: 6
Replaced the Ox in the 84th minute to see out a 1-1 draw.

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