Sport Champions League

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Comment - The European curtain has surely fallen on Arsene Wenger, whose side are irretrievably lost

Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger
Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger

Ian Herbert

Arsene Wenger wore a black suit and looked for all the world like a bank manager who’d wandered into the wrong building when he briefly ventured out from his seat during the difficult early knockings of another torrid night in Munich. He slapped his hips at some indiscretion or other on his players’ part. This man did not seem to belong to the febrile space where Champions League trophies are claimed.

This might well prove to be the night which brings the curtain down on Wenger’s long and frustrated search for a European trophy, though he has certainly been coming here for long enough to know where his side’s deficits reside and to do something about them. Just look back to his words after the desperate Champions League exit in this city 12 years ago, when he suggested there might be a psychological problem after the 3-1 defeat.  "What do you expect me to say?” he said that February night in 2005  I could cry - it would be easier - but life goes on.”

In the beginning, on Wednesday night, there was a challenge of sorts. Laurent Koscielny cut out a ball to Robert Lewandowski which would have been lethal in the striker’s possession and Mesut Ozil briefly materialised back in his own half to place a tackle on Thiago Alcantara. But it really only felt like time had been suspended since the night here 18 months ago when the German side scored five and eviscerated Arsenal.

The English side’s left was the flank they targeted: a place where Arjen Robben versus Kieran Gibbs was a match made in Munich heaven. Wenger’s players tried doubling up on Robben by putting Granit Xhaka there but it made little difference. Bayern danced around the back on the overlap and Robben danced towards the extreme right edge of the Arsenal box. He had buried the ball into the high reaches of David Ospina’s net before as much as a solitary challenge had been placed. Red and White Kings, one of the banners on the north stand states. It didn’t take royalty to crash though these defences.

The chant of ‘We love you Arsenal’ was sent up from the visiting contingent at that pitifully early stage: the kind of reminder often offered for a side in need of succour. That was gracious of them, considering how little the talk of a press on Bayern a little had borne fruit. The distribution to the magnetic left boot of Robben, the perfect 10, was metronomic.

It is not just the despair of ever getting close to this side that makes the outcome so grim, but the momentary hope that existed. For 20 minutes or so after the clock ticked past 9pm here, we saw that slight drop-off in German intensity that comes with the more benign manager and it offered Arsenal a shaft of light in the depths of a very black tunnel indeed. The obsessive Pep Guardiola, who squeezes his players to death, would not have tolerated the complacency Bayern showed in the face of a few counter attacks. Alexis Sanchez, the one player on the level Arsenal need to occupy, seized upon it like a man possessed.

He had already drawn a free kick from Mats Hummels and brought the defender a booking when he despatched an ensuing penalty at the third attempt. Sanchez raged with the referee, was booked, raged some more and was pushed away by his captain. It was as if he knew that the salvation was temporary.

That’s certainly how it turned out. You wondered when the second period began whether there might be a way of finding the intensity to turn the screw on Bayern Munich and start to make them suffer. The pace of Danny Welbeck going at Hummels sprang to mind. “Courage,” as the home side’s manager Carlo Ancelotti described the key Champions League ingredient before the match.

Instead, when we reached the defining minutes of one of those the night which seasons hinge, Arsenal conceded again to precisely the threat that all of football had been talking about these past few days. A delicately lifted cross from Philipp Lahm was the only requirement for Lewandowski to rise above Shkodran Mutsafi and score. The Lewandowski heel was the axis of the third. Even the careworn Thomas Muller joined the party by the end.

Being “efficient defensively” is what Wenger had spoken of beforehand. He will surely never now recover a side who are irretrievably lost in Europe, bereft of any vocabulary.

Independent News Service

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