From Blackburn To Bayern: The Gunners Re-set Their Sights

posted 27 Feb 2013, 14:57 by Richard Brook   [ updated 27 Feb 2013, 14:58 ]
Originally posted here: This piece was never posted anywhere due to an administrative oversight by the website that commissioned it.

Arsene Wenger's Arsenal side will be striving to put the weekend's disappointing reversal, at home to Championship outfit Blackburn Rovers, when they take on Bayern Munich on Tuesday evening. The Gunners' ignominious exit from the FA Cup, at the fifth-round stage, was certainly against the run of play – a cursory glance at the match statistics showing that Arsenal dominated possession and hit the target 12 times from 26 shots, as opposed to Blackburn who had 6 attempts with 50% shooting accuracy. Only one statistic matters in football however and a string of saves from Rovers' stopper Jake Kean meant that just one goal was decisive, coming from Blackburn man, and life long Arsenal fan, Colin Kazim-Richards. The full-time whistle, at the Emirates was greeted by a chorus of boos.

Arsenal's supporters can be forgiven their frustrations, when one takes stock of all the circumstances. Wenger may point to the upcoming Champions League fixture in seeking to explain both the omission of the likes of Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott, and the failure to introduce them until more than two thirds of the game had passed. The fan base is likely to focus on a competition that is genuinely winnable to a top end Premier League team, such as Arsenal, and the fact that the Gunners last trophy win was in the FA Cup itself back in 2005. Whilst admittedly the Den is not the easiest of away days, Arsenal fans must be looking enviously at Blackburn's draw, and reflecting ruefully on Chelsea's professional dispatching of lower league opposition.

Wenger's response to the Blackburn defeat has been typically robust, declaring that the season is “not over”. Those of a more cynical persuasion might make mention of the fact that the last two seasons have seen Arsenal exit the Champions League at the current, round of 16, point, and that to expect a vast improvement on that showing, this season would appear to be without foundation. Monday's Champions League press conference found the Gunners boss in a bullish mood. Wenger fiercely denied rumours that a two year extension to his contract was in the offing. The assembled press universally agreed that this was uncharacteristically angry for a pre-match media session, leading some quarters to speculate that the manager was quite deliberately seeking to take the spotlight off his players, following the weekend's events.

If one thing is certain it is that Tuesday's Champions League opponents, Bayern Munich are capable of posing a real test, for any side they come up against. The fixture represents a considerable obstacle between Wenger, and vindication of his reticence to utilise key players at the weekend, and his assertions about the team's ambitions between now and the end of the season. There is relatively little head to head data between the teams with Bayern winning two to Arsenal's one, and one draw amongst the previous meetings, the only history between the two clubs.

Bayern have talent in abundance throughout their squad from Germany's number one, Manuel Neuer, international captain Philipp Lahm, through the midfield core of Bastian Schweinsteiger and £32 million summer capture Javi Martinez, to an embarrassment of attack minded including, Franck Ribery, Toni Kroos, Mario Mandzukic and Mario Gomez, who has scored 25 goals in 26 Champions League starts. While it must be noted there are no easy draws in the last sixteen of the Champions League, Bayern look a daunting prospect for a team in need of a win to restore their pride, and to fulfil their manager's ambitious sound-bites.

Of course Arsenal are not short on quality either, and although it might not have gelled as readily as might have been hoped, the squad contains players that could easily grace many of Europe's top sides. However what is missing, for the moment at least, is the consistency of performance. Such efficiency is purportedly a German trait, and it is impossible to deny that there have been lean pickings, for opponents, in terms of Bayern's league form this season. Of the 22 domestic matches so far Bayern have won 18 and lost only one.

Bayern's record has been inspired by a summer of restoration work – as opposed to full on rebuilding of the squad. The club have been driven by the desire to overhaul Jurgen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund at the summit of the Bundesliga to re-assert themselves as the dominant force in German football. Currently Bayern sit 13 points ahead of Dortmund in the table as a return for the appointment of Mattias Sammer as director of sport, and over £50 million of investment in the playing squad, including the signings of Shaqiri, Martinez and Mario Mandzukic.

Wenger is rumoured to be considering dropping Oliver Giroud for the Bayern match, preferring instead to play Walcott and Cazorla either side of Lukas Podolski. On paper this would seem like an interesting contest between the pace and flair of Arsenal's forward line against the bruising physicality of Bayern's preferred centre back pairing of Dante and Daniel Van Buyten. Indeed Bayern's hand is somewhat forced in the centre of defence by the enforced absences of Jerome Boateng and Holger Badstuber. The German league leaders are buoyed, however, by the return of Javi Martinez from the bruised toe that forced him to miss Bayern's previous fixture. The Gunners will be without the ineligible Nacho Monreal and the injured Kieran Gibbs, and will give a late check to Laurent Koscielny.

Tuesday night at The Emirates has all the makings of a fascinating encounter between two sides packed full of quality. Wenger and Arsenal will want the win all the more, to make a point to their critics and to prove their season really is not over. The size of the task must not be underestimated, as they face a club that finished second both domestically in Europe, but displayed the ambition Arsenal fans feel starved of, and invested in the improvements that have so far made them a winning machine, this season.

Wenger was absolutely correct when he told the press “What is important is not what people say. It is what happens on the pitch” against the backdrop of an embarrassing FA Cup exit, the manager's own rallying cry that the season is not over, has made sure the defining nature of this game has escaped no-one.