Our next opponents in the Champions League are described these days as the best team in the world. The fact they have won all of their competitive matches but one (the German Supercup) has helped build such a reputation.
We haven’t been at our best in Europe’s most illustrious club competition this season as we are yet to win a single point, despite playing against clubs of much lower reputation than ours. If Olympiacos win their back-to-back fixtures against Dinamo (or, which is very unlikely, vice versa), we will need at least one victory against the best team in the world to even keep our chances for progression alive.
Just to make it more complicated, Bayern have been our jinx club during Arsene Wenger’s reign. We have played the German outfit eight times – we have won twice, lost four times and got kicked out of the Champions League three times by the Deutschland giants including back-to-back eliminations in the Champions League Round of 16 in 2012-13 and 2013-14 respectively.
It’s been twenty months since Bayern’s last visit to Emirates. They won 2:0 on that occasion with Mesut Özil’s missed penalty and Wojciech Szczesny’s red card being the key events of the game.
However, even if it’s been just under two years since the last meeting between the sides and the respective managers are still Arsene Wenger and Josep Guardiola, both teams have gone through some serious changes.
Arsenal will be much stronger with the likes of Petr Čech, Hector Bellerin, Francis Coquelin, Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and Alexis Sánchez adding both steel and pace, two ingredients Arsenal lacked in early 2014. You might have forgotten that we had started Yaya Sanogo in attack.
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Pep Guardiola has done a lot to turn Jupp Heynckes’ unbeatable Bayern into Pep Guardiola’s unbeatable powerhouse. Manuel Neuer is still between the sticks but now with a recognizable sweeper-keeper role. Bayern now play with three defenders – David Alaba, Jerome Boateng and Javi Martinez are expected to keep things tight at the back. Xabi Alonso, Phillip Lahm and Thiago Alcantara are likely to start in front of them. Mario Götze and Douglas Costa will have to create chances for Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller. The Brazilian looks like a shrewd piece of business for Bayern and he is the main reason why Bayern haven’t felt Arjen Robben’s absence at all. Costa has shown his ability to create a goal with ten assists in eight league games (via transfermarkt.de). His cross with the outside of the boot against HSV suggests that our defenders shouldn’t allow him any space to operate witihin.
Fortunately, Toni Kroos, who had scored in both Bayern victories at the Emirates is now at Real Madrid. He swapped places with Xabi Alonso.
When it comes to the dangerman, there is no doubt that Robert Lewandowski is a world-class striker. His five goal blitz against Wolfsburg in just nine minutes was nothing short of spectacular but his link-up play and versatility in front of the opponents’ goal are two characteristics that make the Poland international such a great player. He has already tasted how it feels to score a winning goal at the Emirates – he scored the second goal for Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund in their 2:1 victory in 2012. He has scored 16 goals in 12 matches this season (via transfermarkt.de).
Lewandowski is not the only dangerous attacker in Guardiola’s team though. Thomas Müller is one of the most intelligent forwards out there. His nickname – Der Raumdeuter (The Space Investigator) – says it all. By the age of 26, Müller has won the Champions League, World Cup and Bundesliga despite the fact he is not exactly the paciest, strongest or even the most gifted forward out there. This is where Per Mertesacker steps in– his ability to read the game and intelligence can deny Müller’s influence on the game. The German scored the second goal for Bayern in their victory last year but also missed a penalty at Allianz Arena.
Then again, in order to win the game, we must score at least once so we have to pay some attention to their defence as well. Javi Martinez is a world-class defensive midfielder but Guardiola tends to play him in the back-line. The Austrian David Alaba is a player of the 22nd century. He can play as a left full-back, a defensive midfielder and a central defender and has it all. He’s strong, powerful and with excellent technique, Alaba is a ball-playing defender that Guardiola simply adores. He missed a penalty in the last clash at the Emirates however.
In my book, Jerome Boateng who is actually the only natural central defender in the team, is the weakest link. He is prone to mistakes, lapses of concentration and can be caught flat-footed against world-class dribblers like Özil and Lionel Messi. That’s where the brilliance of Alexis and the pace of Walcott might make the difference as well as high pressure on the Bayern back-line.
It’s worth noting that Bayern’s only defeat in competitive games this season was gainst Wolfsburg. It was none other than Nicklas Bendtner that scored a late equalizer and a decisive penalty for Wolfsburg.
Also, our home form in the Champions League has been poor since 2012 as we have lost six matches out of fourteen but also four out of five against German clubs (Schalke, Bayern x2, Borussia Dortmund). Our latest clash with the German club, however, was a lucky one for us with Yaya Sanogo and Alexis Sánchez scoring goals in a victory against Borussia Dortmund.
Arsene Wenger has fielded the same eleven that won the game at Watford on Saturday.
Bayern won’t feel comfortable facing Petr Čech as the Czech goalkeeper left Bayern frustrated in the 2011-12 Champions League Final played in Munich. Čech’s respective saves of Arjen Robben’s and Ivica Olić’s penalties denied Bayern a fifth European title.
Hector Bellerin has been immense lately. The Spaniard’s runs are extremely important to our game but this might be the game where the Spaniard will have to focus on defending.
Even if most of the Gooners talk about Lewandowski and – to lesser extent – Müller, Nacho Monreal’s task is likely to be the toughest one. Douglas Costa is extremely difficult to handle. Monreal didn’t have the best of games in the last clash between the sides at the Emirates as Robben made a run behind his back so Szczesny had no other choice but to sweep the Dutchman. Monreal 2015 is a different beast though – a defensive rock that knows when to come forward.
Central defenders pick themselves. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny must stay focused for ninety minutes plus injury time as neither Robert Lewandowski nor Thomas Müller will miss what Odion Ighalo had missed against Watford.
Francis Coquelin’s role in this game will be crucial. He’ll have to break down attacks and open up our counter-attacks like he did against Manchester United. Santi Cazorla starts next to him again. Mesut Özil will have a huge motive against Bayern and his international team-mates Neuer, Boateng and Müller.
Aaron Ramsey is likely to occupy a place on the right wing again. Given that Bayern are likely to field three players in the back-line, I expect Ramsey to play important role in our attack. If Bayern don’t play with a classic full-back tonight, Rambo will have more space to operate with. Some of his best performances last season were the ones where the opponents used a three-man back-line (Liverpool, Hull City).
Theo Walcott – who has scored two goals for Arsenal in Champions League – is a player Guardiola will have a lot of problems to handle. He is likely to lead our attack once more.
Finally, Alexis Sánchez. If there is a player that looks sharper than Lewandowski both on club and international level, it’s Alexis. The Chilean has scored seven goals in the last four matches for Arsenal and has every quality needed – pace, strength, technique, prolific – to score against Bayern. Guardiola is aware of Alexis’ quality. After all, it was Guardiola who had signed Alexis for Barcelona in 2011 (via goal.com).
What to expect from the game? Even if we lose, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, our rather thin squad could benefit from an early European exit. However, I wouldn’t write us off ahead of the game. It may sound like a paradox but I think we have an advantage because we play games of higher intensity in the league than Bayern. Their opponents in Bundesliga rarely show some resistance which is something they can’t count on against Arsenal.
That’s why I will go with a 2:1 victory for Arsenal in this one. Alexis and Walcott to score goals for us, Lewandowski to give us a nervy injury-time with a consolation goal for Bayern.