Thursday, February 20, 2014

Bayern Munich are better than Everton

This isn’t going to be a blog about “what if?”, as in “what if Özil had scored?” or “what if Szczesny hadn’t been sent off?” or even “what if we had kept the score at 0-1?”.  The reason this isn’t going to be about that is that I’m actually pretty happy about that game.
No, really, I am.  Here why: we were never going to win the Champions League anyway.
OK, so maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe we’ll win 2-0 at the Allianz, it will go to extra time, one goal each way, go to penalties at 3-3, we forbid Özil to be anywhere near the spot, and we’re through to the quarter finals; a winning streak follows and Abou Diaby scores a 92nd minute belter from the halfway line in Lisbon on 24th May.  Maybe that’s what will happen.
The realist in me tends to doubt it, however.  Even if we got through this round, we would probably have had to face Barcelona, Madrid, Milan, Dortmund, PSG, Chelsea or City in the next, then one of them again in the semis, and then again in the finals, and my gut tells me we would have slipped up somewhere.  For me, this season has never been about the Champions League.  Arsenal feel like they’re at the beginning of a renaissance, but winning the most prestigious club competition in the world comes mid-renaissance, not just as its starting.
No, for me now this season is about competing for the Premier League and making a real stab at the FA Cup.  And the reason I’m pretty happy is this: Arsenal were awesome tonight.
It was, I think, the best we’ve played since Napoli at home.  For the first forty minutes Bayern Munich, the best team in the world and the cup favourites, were made to look no more than mildly talented as Arsenal’s midfield zipped the ball around, kept possession, and created some real chances, with only Manuel Neuer (arguably the world’s best goalkeeper at the moment) keeping them in the game, saving that penalty and denying great efforts from Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanogo.  After Szczesny was sent off Arsenal put in a really valiant effort as Bayern gave a textbook example of how to play against ten men, spreading the play and working Arsenal to their absolute limit, and to only concede two goals in the second half is a real credit to the whole team.
I’m going to talk about Sanogo.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to say he’s our saviour or he’s the new new new new Messi, or anything, but I must confess that I, like everyone else, assumed that this summer purchase was a “one for the future” sort of deal – that Sanogo would play some U21 games (when he wasn’t injured) and then make a nice back-up for a real signing in two years time.  But now Wenger has twice picked him over Bendtner, while Giroud’s personal life messes up his game (I’m sorry, I refuse to believe that this is not why he’s been benched), against first Liverpool and now Munich.  In neither game has he wowed, but he has also not looked at all out of his depth, getting shots on target, showing a real talent for close control, winning the ball in the air and making some smart passes.  If he can stay fit then I think he can make a real contribution to Arsenal’s 13/14 season and will be a key squad member for years to come, and maybe even a first choice striker at some point.  All in all what seemed to be an odd decision is now looking like a good signing, and Wenger deserves credit for that.
But if Sanogo’s performance was good, I thought Wilshere’s was outstanding.  Feel free to disagree with me, but in my opinion this was the best that Jack Wilshere has played for a good few months, probably since the game against Norwich.  Recently Wilshere has been criticised by some of the fan base, mostly, I think, for not being as good as he was in that Barcelona game.  To be honest, he may never have a game like that day again, but today showed why he remains a first-class option for Arsenal, and why Wenger has let him play through his poorer form.  Around him Flamini and Oxlade-Chamberlain also performed admirably, and even Mesut Özil, the only German who can’t score a penalty, didn’t have nearly as bad a game as Gary Neville claimed (although he definitely deteriorated after that missed effort).
So, we didn’t beat Bayern Munich, but you know what?  Who cares.  Our next big game is against Everton, and if we play like we did today, particularly like we did in the first half, then we’ll destroy them, and that puts us in the semi-final, where we’d have a 2/3 chance of drawing one of Hull, Brighton, Sunderland, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday or Charlton Athletic (and the remote possibility of drawing Wigan, should they beat City).  A trophy is, for the first time in many years, a very real possibility.
Meanwhile in the Premier League we sit one point behind Chelsea, with our next three games against Sunderland, Stoke and Swansea.  Again, if we play like we did today then that should be 9 points in the bag, and with Chelsea facing Everton and Tottenham in that time, not to mention a west London derby against a resurgent Fulham, there’s a real chance that we could take back top spot again.  Arteta and Vermaelen will be back in the team, Ramsey should be coming back soon, Källström apparently plays for us, and Gnabry and Zelalem provide us with extra options for the cup if we should need it.
The only thing that really that really concerns me is Gibbs’s injury.  While we’re well covered at left-back – Monreal, Flamini, Sanga and Vermaelen can all play there – Gibbs would always be my first choice, and he was playing well before he pulled up.  Fingers crossed it’s not another long-term injury for him.  There’s a rumour that Ox was taken off because he was carrying a knock, too; I hope that’s not the case, he’s really stepped up in the last couple of weeks and with Walcott unavailable he’s the closest thing we have to an actual winger.
Aside from that, though, I remain optimistic.  I don’t know if we’ll win anything this season.  What I do know is that this is the best Arsenal have looked in years – we have options on the bench, we have great players who are still young enough to become world-class players, we have money to spend in the summer, we have an outstanding set of defenders, and we still have Arsene Wenger.  I am, in short, the happiest I have ever been as an Arsenal fan, and I look forward to seeing the Champions League trophy in the Emirates in three years time.
N.B. I wasn’t at the game tonight – I know Sam was – but based on what I saw/heard on Sky Sports the Arsenal fans were in excellent form and really backed their team in a tough game.  I tip my hat to you, ladies and gentlemen – it’s great to see and long may it continue!