The north Londoners fell to a 3-1 defeat at home to Bayern Munich, all but ending their trophy hopes for another season
By Jay Jaffa
It didn’t take long. Seven minutes in fact, for Arsene Wenger’s statement of defiance; the necessity of keeping a clean sheet against Bayern Munich, to be rendered futile.
Wenger was defiant, because he had to be. Out of both domestic cups and enduring a Premier League campaign in danger of being labelled the worst in the Frenchman’s tenure left the beleaguered boss backed into a corner.
The press corps witnessed a mini-meltdown on Monday as he lashed out in an impassioned defence of his credentials, Mikel Arteta the awkward accomplice, sat anxiously alongside.
What would Wenger’s answer be? Unfortunately, and ever so predictably, it was bold, courageous, but littered with the hallmarks of a season that continues to lurch toward the desperate.
From the over-zealous lunges of Arteta and Lukas Podolski, to cartoon caper goalkeeping of Wojciech Szczesny and madcap moments of Per Mertesacker, this is a team bereft of confidence being sent out to duel blindfolded.
There is an arrogance associated with Wenger, a myopic focus on his team and his principles. The strength of the opposition tends to be an afterthought, particularly when Arsenal are the hosts. But in this instance, on the biggest stage, with Jupp Heynckes’ German giants in town, Wenger needed to change the record.
Whether it is Blackburn or Bayern Munich, Arsenal continue to approach games in a near-identical manner. The results, as has often been the case this year, move in patterns too.
As Thomas Muller opportunistically pounced to make it 2-0 in the 21st minute, familiar groans emanated from the crowd. Wojciech Szczesny had failed to snaffle the initial header; a header from an unmarked Daniel van Buyten, and Arsenal were left ruing their own sloppiness as they glanced up at the scoreboard.
The game fast resembled the tale of Arsenal’s season. As Szczesny continued to cope with the tricky and make a meal of the mundane, fans were reminded of one of a growing number of problems. The wobbly backline, quick to ensure it was not lost in the chaos, left gaps for Bayern to surge into and Arsenal were fortunate to finish the half just two goals behind.
Then came the inevitable second half resurgence. Like so many fixtures before it, Arsenal rallied and took the game to the Bundesliga leaders. Suddenly, Jack Wilshere was not alone in carrying the threat to Manuel Neuer’s goal as Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott found the room and moments to finally push Bayern on to the backfoot.
The goal itself was fortunate, and almost surprising that it hadn’t happened at the other end, as Neuer got lost in a sea of bodies leaving Lukas Podolski to plant a bouncing ball into the unguarded net. Yet it felt deserved.
They would go on and grab an equaliser now, surely? Not quite. The game became a microcosm of their season – Arsenal had nearly salvaged a result from the brink of defeat, instead succumbing to a sweeping move and watching as Mario Mandzukic applied the final touch to Phillip Lahm’s low cross for the third away goal of the evening.
The tie is effectively over. It might not be ingrained in headlines tomorrow, but no-one will need reminding that this will be Arsenal’s eighth trophy-less season. It is the knock-on effects that will be the most concerning, because for the first of Arsenal’s previous 13 Champions League knockout stage exits, this one is set to feel different.
There was no expectancy placed on this tie, just hope that the Gunners could be competitive and keep the tie alive for when they jetted out to Munich in a fortnight. The days of Arsenal as contenders for the game’s biggest prize are long gone and the players know it.
Bacary Sagna, amongst others, looked petrified in the tunnel before the game. The stakes were no bigger than previous years, certainly not more so than when Arsenal defeated Barcelona 2-1, yet fragility seeped out of the player’s pores.
The confident swagger of Wenger’s trophy-winning teams is a distant memory, indeed it was Bayern who looked the Invicibles, zipping the ball around and exerting their will on the opposition. Arsenal in comparison, continue to rot and limp their way to May.
Exept May might not bring respite. Not if they finish outside of the top four. They face Aston Villa at the Emirates this weekend in what would normally be a walkover in any other season. Yet, the fear seems terminal and after two emotionally draining matches in a week, many will fancy an upset.
Let’s be clear; tonight was not the straw that broke the camel’s back, Arsenal have been in decline for years. But this season has brought it all to the fore and Bayern barely needed to hit top gear to secure a near-unassailable advantage in this tie.
Wilshere may have defended Wenger after the game, stating: “for me you can’t question him,” but he is firmly in the minority as Arsenal face the music once again.
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