Can Arsenal stop the Bayern juggernaut?

Arsenal will have to pull out all the stops if they are to beat Bayern Munich and progress into the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

Football News: Lukas Podolski, Mikel Arteta
Noah Tan

By Noah Tan

The fortunes of Bayern and Arsenal this season could not be more contrasting.

Die Roten have been in scintillating form all season long and are firmly on track to reclaim the Bundesliga title from Borussia Dortmund after having currently established a commanding 15 point lead at the top of the table.

Think of Arsenal on the other hand, and the word "disappointing" springs to mind. The Gunners have virtually no chance of winning the Premier League having fallen 21 points behind leaders Manchester United, and their woeful season took a turn for the worse on Saturday when they were knocked out of the FA Cup by struggling Championship side Blackburn Rovers.

For the Gunners, who were also booted out of the Capital One Cup by League Two outfit Bradford City, the Champions League now represents the only opportunity for them to end their eight-year trophy drought.

But first, Arsene Wenger and his men will have to navigate past their way a Bayern side yearning to put to bed the painful memories of their unlucky, and arguably undeserved, loss to Chelsea in last season's Champions League final in their very own backyard.

No chinks in Bayern's armour

While some have argued that Bayern's domination in the Bundesliga is down to the lack of quality opposition in the German league (a flawed argument, but a topic best saved for another editorial), there is no denying that Die Roten have a group of players who can command regular playing time in any team in the world.

In goal, Bayern have the consistent Manuel Neuer, an excellent shot-stopper who has long established himself as Germany's number one goalkeeper. That Die Roten have only conceded seven goals in the Bundesliga this season can be largely attributed to the 26-year-old's excellent performances, although Neuer has certainly been helped by an impressive backline.

Dante has formed a formidable partnership with David Alaba in the middle of defence, whilst the energetic Philipp Lahm and vastly improved Jerome Boateng do a very good job marauding down the flanks.

But it is in midfield where Bayern's strength in depth truly shines. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez, Toni Kroos, Luiz Gustavo, and Xherdan Shaqiri are all centre-midfielders capable of mixing it with the very best on their day and who have developed a good understanding with each other. There is a good blend of energy, finesse and physicality within these group of players, and opposition teams often find themselves being starved of possession when going up against them.

Up front, both Mario Mandzukic and Mario Gomez may not be the most mobile or skilled strikers, but they offer a physical and aerial threat very few other players can match and are usually unerring when presented with a good opportunity to go for goal. Thomas Muller's clever off-the-ball running often catches opposition defences unawares, and the German international has proven himself to be not only capable of scoring goals but of creating them as well.

And then of course, we come to Bayern's trump cards. Everyone knows how and where Die Roten will base their attacks. But very few have found a way to stop it. I am of course, talking about wingers Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery, the dynamic duo also affectionately nicknamed "Robbery". Incredibly fast, tricky and effective, both Ribery and Robben have the ability to unlock tight defences and can change the course of the game in an instant with a moment of brilliance.

To top it off, Bayern have one of the most astute and experienced tacticians in Jupp Heynckes managing them from the dugout. The 67-year-old will be making way for Pep Guardiola during the summer, and there is no doubt he will want to leave the club on a high. What better way for him to do it than to right the wrongs of last season by securing the biggest prize in European club football before he exits the club?

Arsenal are a right mess

Nothing has gone according to plan for Arsenal so far.

New signings Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud were supposed to address the inherent problems in the team and mark the first step into a new era of footballing supremacy for the Gunners; instead, the club seems to have taken two steps back and have lost the backing of a majority of their very own supporters after a series of underwhelming performances and results.

Morale is at an all-time low at the Emirates Stadium. The poisonous atmosphere permeating the stands is choking, and the home advantage that Arsenal have in the first-leg of the tie may prove to be their undoing instead.

Sure, there is genuine talent within this team. Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla are two of the most gifted players the club have ever had, but for far too long have both of them had to shoulder the burden of carrying the deadweight dragging them down.

The Gunners' loss to Blackburn in the FA Cup only served to show that players like Gervinho and Abou Diaby are simply not up to the mark. Giroud may have had some success playing as a target man so far, but unlike his predecessors Robin Van Persie and Thierry Henry, the former Montpellier player cannot lead the line on his own and requires someone to play off him in order to be truly effective.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has suffered a dip in form, Wojciech Szczesny is hardly the unwavering force in goal he was once touted to be, Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott blow hot and cold with an ironic consistency, Per Mertesacker has been prone to lapses of concentration, and Thomas Vermaelen cannot seem to cut out the basic errors which have plagued his game this season.

Wenger has been pinpointed as the figurehead for the club's current malaise, and not without good reason. The Frenchman's contributions to the club and to English football itself cannot be dismissed so easily, but he seems to have lost the plot in recent times and appears unable to inspire his troops anymore. Yes, there certainly still is a burning desire within Wenger to achieve success (in particular, winning the elusive Champions League) with Arsenal, but whether he simply has run out of ideas how to do so or for some other underlying reason, it does appear that the 63-year-old has brought the club as far as he can.

Differences in attitude and belief

The fact of the matter is, Arsenal appear to be a fading force and are unlikely to cause an upset against the mighty Bayern.

"Just now it would be a bit pretentious to say that [we can win the Champions League], but you never know," Wenger humbly admitted.

"We have to give it a good shot on Tuesday night and see where we stand afterwards.

"The players are really hurt [from the FA Cup loss], but now you have to take it on the chin and come back with a strong response. That is all we can do."

Such negative words may not have sat well with some of the fans, but no one should chide Wenger for not sugarcoating his words (for once!) and telling it as it is. Of course, it is a sad indictment of the club that winning games in the Champions League has become something of a bonus rather than a norm.

Compare this to Schweinsteiger's war cry, and you get a better indication of the distinction between the two camps' attitude towards the game.

"In Munich we play to win," Schweinsteiger declared.

"There's a famous slogan here in the Bavarian dialect and we use it inside Bayern Munich. We say, 'Mia san mia'. Literally it is, 'We are we', but it means, 'We are who we are'. That's not being very arrogant but we are very confident about our ability to win the game.

"It is about a winning mentality. When our players come from somewhere else they sometimes show happiness when the game is 0-0 or 1-1, but we were brought up in an environment where we have to win.

"We are not satisfied with 0-0 or 1-1. This is the mentality of Bayern Munich."

If half the battle is won in the mind, then Bayern surely have an even larger advantage now heading into the last-16 clash.



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