Arsenal – Bayern Munich (Champions League)
Wednesday night Arsenal host what is almost unanimously considered the best football team in the world, European Champions Bayern Munich. It’s the first leg of the Champions League last 16 and quite frankly not many expect the Londoners to progress, but they’ll give the German a run for their money.
Last Sunday Arsène Wenger’s men were able to beat Liverpool and therefore shake off the unpleasant feeling of debacle caused by the 5-1 at Anfield ten days ago. That earned them a ticket to the next FA Cup round and well needed boost of confidence just prior what may well be their toughest clash of the season. Arsenal had a remarkable first-half season. Against all odds and the many cynics they were leaders of the Premier League table just until last month. And they did it being dominant at the Emirates (9W, 3D, 1L), quite strong in their outings (8W, 2D, 3L) and exhibiting an excellent football. For a time there were references to Arsenal’s resembling the tiki-taka. But the moment of truth arrived and so the noted shortcomings were suddenly high-lightened. The squad lacked depth, something painfully obvious as the injuries started piling up. Olivier Giroud particularly was forced to play an absurd number of minutes since Arsenal had no decent substitute forward. Sorry but Niklas Bentner doesn’t cut it. They passed on the January transfer window, a move that could cost them the League title. Mesut Ozil signing set the bar, it meat they were serious, and his creative spark spread through the roster. Even when he is in poor form, holding by threads, he can decide a game. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny paired up beautifully but even them suffered a meltdown in the visit to Liverpool. But the real core-stone is Aaron Ramsey, once he was forced out the entire squad suffered. He made the difference, with his pace, intensity and effectiveness.
On Sunday Wenger tested a few changes in the starting XI, introducing Podolski on the left, Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right and young Yaya Sanogo in front of them. It clearly paid off for the German and the English playing on the wings, since they were the ones scoring for Arsenal. Chamberlain was particularly decisive. But the French Manager will surely return to his safe place, bringing in Giroud, Cazorla and possibly Rosicky. Wilshere is likely to step in for the sanctioned Arteta, Jenkinson and Monreal are to be replaced for Gibbs and Sagna.
The Gunners’ treatment room continues crowded: Thomas Vermaelen (calf), Abou Diaby (knee), Kim Kallstrom (back), Theo Walcott (knee) and Aaron Ramsey (thigh). Michael Arteta will be unavailable due to suspension over a red card.
Probable line-up: Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Wilshere, Flamini – Rosicky, Ozil, Cazorla – Giroud.
Pep Guardiola’s main issue at the moment is to keep Bayern‘s confidence from turning into arrogance. They are so good now the biggest risk is over-confidence. They lead the Bundesliga 16 points clear of 2nd seed Bayern Leverkusen, with the best attack (57) and best defence (9) of the competition. In fact they were only beaten twice this season, by Dortmund in the German Super Cup (4-2) and Manchester City (2-3) in their visit to the Allianz Arena in December. The roster is an overwhelming display of exquisite talented players throughout, from Manuel Neuer in goal to Mario Gotze in the box or the inevitable Philip Lahm, Arjen Robben, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Jerôme Boateng, Xherdan Shaqiri, we could go through the line-up, really. So much so that men like Thomas Muller or Mario Mandzukic often sit in the bench.
Frank Ribbéry is the major casualty in the German side, he underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from his buttocks. Shaqiri damaged his hamstring on Saturday’s 4-0 victory over Freiburg and will miss this one out.
Probable line-up: Neuer – Rafinha, Boateng, Dante, Alaba – Lahm – Muller, Kroos, Schweinsteiger, Robben – Goetze.
The two sides went head-to-head last season in the same Champions League stage, Bayern progressing on goals away in a 3-3 aggregate. The German went forward to win the cup. Arsenal have been frequent flyers in the competition but are yet to win a title, their best result is runners-up in 2005/06. Bayern Munich have a handful of trophies – 1974, 1975, 1976, 2001 and 2013. Going on six?