Thursday 18 January 2018

Arsenal still belong in Europe and may be finally coming of age

Arsenal's French striker Olivier Giroud (C) celebrates scoring his team's first goal with Alexis Sanchez (L) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Arsenal's French striker Olivier Giroud (C) celebrates scoring his team's first goal with Alexis Sanchez (L) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

Paul Hayward

In 16 days Arsenal have beaten Manchester United 3-0 and Bayern Munich 2-0. Not forgetting the 3-0 win at Watford – but ‘The Hornets’ will forgive their lower billing.

Against the odds of a dire Champions League group stage start, Arsene Wenger’s team are still advancing on two fronts.

The victors here resisted the temptation to give up on Europe for a year, to stand and admire the Bayern Munich carousel before returning to domestic priorities. The pugnacious first-half running of Theo Walcott produced no goal but was a statement of the team’s determination not to submit to German brilliance.

Olivier Giroud, displaced by Walcott in this starting XI, scored with a messy lunge before Mesut Ozil closed it out with Arsenal’s second. Beating Bayern Munich is almost an offence against nature this term, but Arsenal now have a chance to complete the double in Bavaria on 4 November.

At first they could do nothing about the sweet rhythms of Bayern’s play. On the home team’s right-hand flank Douglas Costa tried to tie Hector Bellerin into every naval knot. In the centre-forward channel, Robert Lewandowski threatened to extend his astonishing recent run of finding the net in multiples.

Arsenal played a Champions League game without the ball. They were besieged in their own stadium. But then the enterprise of Walcott began punching holes in the encirclement and Arsenal found their confidence again.

The subliminal temptation to abandon this Champions League campaign must have been there for Wenger’s players. Such a ripe opportunity presents itself to win a Premier League title for the first time in more than a decade that Wenger’s men might have been thinking more about Everton and Swansea, their next two domestic opponents.

They could never admit it, of course. But after two defeats, to Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiacos, the usual progress to the knock-out rounds had become an ordeal. Who do you least want to scrap for points with when your chance in the Champions League is already so badly damaged? How about Bayern Munich, the first German club to win their first nine Bundesliga games, and a marvel of smooth precision.

Arsenal are much too proud to actively ‘tank’ a Champions League group. This clash was about righting the wrongs of the first two fixtures, going eye to eye with Bayern, displaying their European pedigree.

In this situation, though, teams make subtle calculations. The more people say Arsenal can win the English championship the more likely it was that their continental efforts would drop a notch. The technical phrase for what Arsenal were confronting home and away to the mighty Bayern, seemingly, was flogging a dead horse.

The context was that Germany’s champions had won on their last two visits, both times in the round of 16. In February 2014 goals from Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller exposed a gap in class that a subsequent 1-1 draw in Munich could not disguise.

Then, Munich’s front line was led by Mario Mandzukic. Now the main threat is that Polish pirate, Lewandowski, who had scored 22 times in 16 games for Bayern and Poland. Arsenal had won only one of four home fixtures against Germany’s greatest club. That kind of record is bound to chew away at confidence.

Picking your best goalkeeper helps. Wenger’s inexplicable decision to rotate in nets had backfired spectacularly. This time an injury to David Ospina removed any temptation to leave out Petr Cech, whose gymnastic shot-stopping, especially from Thiago Alcantara in the first-half, encouraged Arsenal to believe they might yet keep Bayern out.

Inspired by Cech’s example, Walcott decided he was going to advertise his prowess as central striker on a wider stage, and began darting beyond Bayern’s two centre-backs, Jerome Boateng and David Alaba. Walcott took charge of Arsenal’s counter-attacks before the best chance of the half fell his way. But he could only head a cross from Nacho Monreal within catching range of Manuel Neuer.

It was Giroud however who exposed Neuer as a fellow mortal. After Walcott gave way to the bigger, more senior striker, a high ball into the Bayern box was botched by Neuer, who ran out to punch but succeeded only in glancing the ball onto Giroud’s head/hand.

The temptation in these fixtures is to marvel at Munich’s majesty, but for long spells there was no end product to their endless syncopation. What impresses always is their control: the sense that any game is theirs to run, in their own style, in their own time, and that no opponent can hope to beat them on passing and possession.

Theirs is a marriage of Guardiola’s Barcelona background and a more direct, Bavarian machismo; the blend the Bayern directors dreamed of when they hired Guardiola before the end of his sabbatical. Arsenal have their own strengths, but they had been badly wounded by Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiacos.

Their response to being outplayed by Bayern Munich early in this encounter bodes well for the more important challenge at home: that of bringing the Premier League trophy back to Highbury and Islington after a decade of jam tomorrow.

This was a performance of tenacity and nerve, with the Arsenal defence standing up to the German scoring machine and Bayern slipping below their usual lethal standards. Bayern’s run of 12 consecutive wins in all competitions is broken.

Arsenal still belong in Europe and thoroughly earned this reprieve.

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