Battling Arsenal beat Bayern but bow out of Champions League
Bayern Munich 0
(3-3 on agg, Bayern through on away goals)
Dignity in elimination, victory in defeat, a rare humbling of the mighty Bayern Munich and just one goal away from the most remarkable comeback in recent memory. This is Arsenal in 2013, a mix of hope and disappointment whose speciality has become a strange kind of heroic failure.
First of all, let us give Arsenal their due for beating a Bayern side that has lost just two games previously all season and saw an 11-match winning streak come to an end last night. Yes, Bayern looked pretty ordinary and their unfortunate habit of choking against English clubs in Europe almost came back to haunt them again.
But in the end the German side held out against that third goal that would have sent Arsenal into the quarter-finals of the competition and Arsene Wenger's side ended up as the last English contender in the Champions League to go quietly into the night. But what a strange old game, in which Arsenal took the lead in the third minute and, seemingly so relieved to have clawed back some pride, ambled through much of the rest of it.
Not until Laurent Koscielny added the second goal with five minutes to left, to add to Olivier Giroud's opener, did a raw panic grip the subdued crowd at the Allianz Arena. Good grief, could chaotic old Arsenal actually pull this one off? It was only last May that the locals watched in horror as Chelsea came back at them and pinched the European Cup in their own stadium.
Not this time. Not another heroic comeback, Barcelona-style. But for Arsenal's players and Wenger in particular, this was an important evening of face-saving. When the Arsenal players went to salute their travelling support at the end the fans responded with true appreciation of a performance that must have surprised them.
In a game bookended by two Arsenal goals, for long period in the middle, there was precious little evidence that the away side truly believed they could win the game. That 3-1 defeat at the Emirates on 19 February was simply far too great a deficit for Arsenal ever to overhaul but the funny thing was they very nearly stumbled there.
A victory on away goals was not quite what Bayern had in mind but then it has been a habit of this Arsenal side to pull out a performance when, let's face it, the real opportunity has passed them by. Whether they can turn this kind of resilience into a precious three points against Swansea on Saturday still remains to be seen.
It was not a team selection that suggested Arsène Wenger was prepared to accept the inevitability of defeat, with the likes of Theo Walcott, Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla present in the starting line-up. Sure, there was Lukasz Fabianski making his first start in more than a year, a decision that Wenger is yet to explain satisfactorily, but the biggest decision was Thomas Vermaelen's omission.
Not injured, not jaded and not rested. Just dropped by the looks of it. The Arsenal captain, who was the club's designated player at Tuesday's press conference, was soon warming up vigorously. His form was poor against Tottenham, it has been dubious all season, but Wenger has been loyal to lesser performers.
Per Mertesacker springs to mind but he was in the side alongside Laurent Koscielny in the centre of defence. It was a defence that looked, in the first half at least, significantly more confident than it has done in a while. It was notable that Bayern, while pushing Arsenal hard at times, did not carve out much in the way of chances and were not particularly threatening at set-pieces.
Fabianski was pressed into action on a couple of occasions, including a fifth-minute shot from Toni Kroos, but he was not forced to exert himself much before half-time. Carl Jenkinson looked composed at right-back and his calm facing-down of Arjen Robben on 27 minutes, before ushering the winger wide and dispossessing him, was a sign of this young man's potential.
Then there was the Arsenal goal. It arrived within three minutes, less than the time it took Lionel Messi to score against Milan on Tuesday. The ball was worked right to Walcott by Tomas Rosicky and the Englishman's decisive cross was met hard by Olivier Giroud. It goes without saying that it was not what the German side expected.
Wenger's side never quite created anything as good in the rest of the first half, although you did get the feeling that every time Walcott had the ball at his feet on the right he had the beating of David Alaba. He struck one more inviting ball across the face of the goal on 31 minutes that no Arsenal team-mate could get a toe on to.
Either way, Arsenal did not disappear for half-time humiliated, far from it. They struggled to retain the ball for long periods and missed the influence of Jack Wilshere in the centre, where Cazorla might have been deployed. But for that period at least they halted the great Bayern machine that was without the injured Franck Ribery and the suspended Bastian Schweinsteiger.
In truth, Bayern struggled all night to find any rhythm but then so too did Arsenal. Having scored they had overcome arguably their worst fear of all – a humiliation – but even in the second half they did not play like a team who urgently required three goals.
Rather it was Bayern who made the running. There was a cross from Muller that went under Fabianski, the first time the stand-in goalkeeper had made an error all night. Fabianski redeemed himself with an excellent instinctive save from Robben when the player was put through on goal on 68 minutes.
Not until the last 18 minutes did Wenger truly roll the dice. He brought on Gervinho for Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Walcott, although in the case of the latter substitution it barely raised the stakes in attacking terms.
Then, with five minutes remaining, Koscielny headed a Cazorla corner past Manuel Neuer and all hell broke loose as the Arsenal players tried to get the ball from the goalkeeper and get the game restarted. There were nine bookings in a game that barely had any tension in it for 85 minutes. At least Arsenal could claim they were in it to the final whistle. (© Independent News Service)