Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Draw in Munich means regrets are still from the first leg

For the second year in a row, Arsenal have gone out of the Champions League in the round of 16 against Bayern Munich, and a spirited second leg performance wasn’t enough to make up for the two-goal first leg defeat. The 1-1 draw was a strange game as Arsenal clearly wanted to really attack the hosts, but this Bayern side are even better than last season’s incarnation and are so good at keeping the ball that if was difficult for Arsenal to exert the pressure they wanted to.
When the Gunners did break out, there were moments of danger, however the final pass was just lacking on most occasions.
Defensively, Arsenal for the main part held Bayern at arms’ length, with Bastin Schweinsteiger converting the clearest chance they created. Per Mertesacker was immense again, but a mention must be given for the performance of Thomas Vermaelen at left-back. With Gibbs and Monreal injured, Vermaelen was pressed into action out of position, and considering he’d only made his comeback after two months out at the weekend, the Belgian dealt well with the threat on his side of the pitch. Bayern had targeted him as a make-shift left-back in the first leg last season, but on this occasion, Vermaelen stood firm. If he leaves this summer, it’ll be understandable as he should be playing regular first-team football, but it would be a real shame as he remains a quality defender.
The stand-out performer was undoubtedly Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who always looked like Arsenal’s most dangerous attacking outlet, despite predominantly playing as one of the deep lying midfielders. His skill and pace running with the ball led to Bayern players taking it in turns to foul him. With the current injury situation, the Ox will have a huge part to play in the run-in to the end of the season, and when fit, should be starting. With no Theo Walcott, his raw pace adds another dimension to this team.
Most of the players couldn’t match the industry and effort of Oxlade-Chamberlain in the first half, including Lukas Podolski. However, the German stepped up in the second half and suddenly looked like a dangerous outlet on the left. Podolski can be frustrating because he has real talent and a wonder of a left foot, but does have a habit of flickering in and out of games. His finish for Arsenal’s equaliser in the Allianz Arena was beautiful in its ferocity. From a tight angle, he almost took the net off. Like Oxlade-Chamberlain, with others out the team, Podolski will be needed in the run-in. His overall contribution might not seem massive, but manoeuvre him into a position to release the kraken from his left foot and he’ll definitely score goals.
Some of the British press appear to have laid into Mesut Ozil after he was substituted at half time with a hamstring injury. Whilst it’s true that he wasn’t heavily involved in the first half, he was playing the right hand side and Arsenal didn’t see much of the ball as Bayern kept it well. It’s difficult for Ozil to impact a game if he isn’t getting the ball. Plus, it’s even harder if you are carrying a hamstring injury.
After the first leg, it was always going to be unlikely that Arsenal turned the tie around. Even though it wasn’t a dead rubber, it is frustrating that such a game could have cost Arsenal the services of Mesut Ozil for the coming weeks because of that hamstring injury. The Everton game showed he was back in business, so if he does miss the coming big games, Arsenal’s chances of winning those matches will be greatly reduced, whatever those making him a scapegoat say.
There were a few half chances for the Gunners in Munich where a better decision or pass could have lead to a goal, but the biggest ifs were in the first leg. The penalty, the red card and the late second goal all killed the tie. Had Ozil scored, had it stayed 11 v 11 and even if Arsenal had only lost 1-0, it could have been a completely different tie. At least this season, a Champions League exit isn’t the end of Arsenal’s trophy interests. The league could be slipping away, but we have a day out at Wembley in April to look forward to, softening the blow of the European exit.
Finally, I can’t blog about the game without mentioning Arjen Robben. The referee gave a few strange decisions throughout the game, as most do in Europe, but how he didn’t book Robben for one of the worst dives I’ve seen is beyond me. It’s difficult for players to complain a reputation when you see theatrics that merely justify it. Even the penalty that was given was soft with Robben going over horribly easily again. Despite it not meaning too much in the grand scheme of the tie, there was a huge amount of satisfaction at seeing Lukasz Fabianski brilliantly save the penalty from Muller. At least Robben’s attempts at winning an Oscar didn’t get much reward on the night. Top work, Lukasz.
We’re out, but certainly not disgraced. The injuries are a concern, but we can still be confident for the bigger game on Sunday.