Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Defeated, but Arsenal shouldn't be demoralised

Exactly a year ago to the day since Bayern Munich were last in Islington to face Arsenal in the Champions League, the German champions were back to try and repeat their 3-1 win from 2013. They did get a two goal victory again with a 2-0 lead to take into the second leg in three weeks time, however Arsenal will be a lot less demoralised than they were this time last year.
For 20 minutes or so at the start of this tie, Arsenal were excellent. The Gunners played at a high intensity, were looking to get Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the ball and utilise his pace, weren’t letting the visitors settle and were going toe to toe with the European champions. It was shaping up to be a classic game, helped by the rocking atmosphere following the well-organised card display before the game, making the Emirates look like the superb footballing arena it is. Major kudos to RedAction for making it happen. It undoubtedly helped Arsenal make a rousing start to the game.
The Gunners had the perfect opportunity to have something to show for their fast start when Boateng fouled Mesut Ozil in the box. With normal penalty takers Arteta and Giroud not playing, Ozil took the spot kick himself, but stuttered his run-up, giving Bayern keeper Neuer the chance to make a save. It might have worked for Ozil before, but I’m not a fan of stuttered run-ups. Just put your foot through the ball!
At 11 v 11, Arsenal were right in the game. They were controlling Bayern well and looked dangerous on the attack. However all of that changed with some unsurprising brainless refereeing. As much as we moan about referees in England, it should be genuinely embarrassing for UEFA that the quality of the refereeing in their major competitions is so poor. Arjen Robben spun in behind the Arsenal defence and miscontrolled the ball as it dropped over his head. Wojciech Szczesny came out to make himself big expecting to have to make a save, caught Robben and a penalty was given. That was fair enough.
However, the red card that followed for Szczesny was ludicrous. Was it a foul? Yes. Did Szczesny cynically prevent a clear goal scoring opportunity? No. There was no way Robben would have reached the ball to score after he was brought down, and no way that Szczesny was looking to foul him. Suddenly Arsenal had to sacrifice an attacking outfielder to get substitute goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski on, and they had to play over an hour against one of the best teams around with 10 men. David Alaba missed the subsequent spot kick, but the red card effectively ruined the contest as Arsenal had to be more defensive.
Overall, the Arsenal defence stood up well to Bayern’s continued waves of attack and constant pressure. The problem was that Arsenal struggled to get any possession in the Bayern half, meaning that they were pinned back and couldn’t momentarily relieve any pressure. It says a lot about Arsenal’s defending though that before a tired back line was punctured late-on by Thomas Muller, it had only been a wonder strike from Toni Kroos that was the difference between the teams.
Whilst there ultimately wasn’t much focus on him as Arsenal had to defend so much with ten men, it was notable that Yaya Sanogo was picked up front again by Arsene Wenger, instead of Olivier Giroud. Whatever has or hasn’t gone on in Giroud’s private life, he needs to get his head straight otherwise he won’t be much help during the season run-in. Hopefully being left out of such a huge European game will be a wake-up call to knuckle down and not get involved in any off-the-field activities the night before a game.
Fortunately, unlike previous seasons, the Champions League isn’t the only possible trophy left for Arsenal, with very real title and FA Cup chances still alive. That still doesn’t stop it being immensely frustrating that a spirited Arsenal performance was affected by a sending off against a big European team. Qualification will be very difficult in the second leg, especially if there is more bizarre refereeing in a big UEFA match.