The negativity surrounding Arsenal’s Champions League campaign is understandable. Two defeats from two matches is enough for fans to be reaching for the white flag – but when the opposition is of the calibre of Dynamo Zagreb and Olympiacos – then it could be justified for Gooners to consign this seasons European to simply hoping that Arsenal don’t finish third and therefore drop into the Europa League.
A 2-0 win was as far removed from what was expected and to a man, the Arsenal team played their roles perfectly and breathed new life into their Champions League campaign with a victory that will be remembered for quite some time, especially given the calibre of the opponent.
The Gunners league form has been electric of late. The match which has lit the fuse on the cannon is Alexis Sanchez. His first hat-trick for Arsenal in our 5-2 victory at Leicester, a brace against United which exhibited both sides of his superb attacking talent and the goal which broke stubborn Watford’s resistance in the weekend – this shows the Chilean, whilst being in red-hot form – is in the form of his life. It isn’t only the indefatigable South American that is benefitting from his goalscoring though, from Mesut Ozil having more options with the ball and Theo Walcott having an excellent foil for which to alter his runs, Alexis Sanchez is the sunshine which is shining on Arsenal – and his teammates are getting a fine tan.
Theo Walcott once again got the nod in a huge match, indicative of how much faith and confidence Arsene Wenger has in the Englishman. Olivier Giroud will surely start against Everton in the weekend but one place that wasn’t questioned is Petr Cech returning to the European fold in place of David Ospina. The Columbian is injured but the ailment has perhaps allowed him to save face as if he was fit, the clamour for him to return to the understudy role would have been deafening.
The first half began with a scare as Europe’s hottest hitman Robert Lewandowski broke through Mertesacker’s weak tackle and was clean through before scuffing his attempt. Twelve wins in a row in all competitions this season is how Bayern have started, and they began this game in much the same manner. Dominating possession with machine-like precision passing, their match against Werder Bremen in the weekend yielded 81% of the ball. Yet it was Arsenal who had the best chance with Sanchez offering Ozil the ball and his low shot fully tested Manuel Neuer, who parried it behind for a corner. This was the pattern for the half – Bayern holding the ball, reliant on the trickery of Douglas Costa, with Arsenal breaking quickly through the lightning rapidity of Sanchez and Walcott. Bellerin and Ramsey also were combining well – although in a defending sense young Hector was struggling to keep tabs on Douglas Costa – and were pivotal in creating another golden chance for the Gunners, with the culmination being Walcott putting in a header from about seven or eight yards and the class of Neuer told again with another fantastic save. Ramsey followed up but put it wide under immense pressure from Bayern.
By this time, Theo, Ozil and Sanchez were beginning to find their flow and as the half time whistle blew, Bayern left the field with 73% possession, 230 passes to Arsenal’s 68, but Arsenal, and the three players above especially, were responsible for the best openings. The Gunners looked rightfully dismayed they weren’t in front.
Bayern fans were promptly back in their seat for the second half, unlike for the first five minutes of the match as a portion protested at the extortionate prices they had paid for a ticket ( Arsenal fans applauded as they returned to their seat as we’ve been putting up with it for many a year! ) and they again started with their foot firmly on the accelerator. Even though Costa was teaching Bellerin a defensive lesson, they had not yet breached the Gunner’s backline. They were slowly amping up pressure though, with Xabi Alonso pinging passes from his deep position and Lewandowski keeping Mertesacker and Koscielny busy, although the Pole was finding life just as tough.
Ten minutes in, Aaron Ramsey, another tireless performance from the Welsh wonder and showing signs of building a great dynamic with Hector Bellerin, appeared to tweak a hamstring and was instantly subbed for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Worrying signs but he walked off rather than being carted off on a stretcher, so he may miss out for the weekend but a lengthy lay-off is uncertain.
The second half saw a drop in Ozil and Sanchez’s productivity as supply lines were cut due to all hands being on the pump to combat the all-encompassing Bayern attack. Whilst Thiago Alcantara and Muller had been almost invisible from an attacking perspective, they had adapted their duties so that Costa could be given more of a free rein. It was working well.
A change was needed and Wenger opted to swap Walcott for Giroud just as he did in the weekend against Watford. Gooners would have been hoping that the result played out as it did against the Hornets as the Frenchman plundered a goal, and the fans recognised his recent efforts by singing his name. Then, a massive moment.
Lewandowski finally freed himself from the shackles of the Big German Mertesacker and Frenchman Koscielny and was clean through, the only obstacle was Cech. Cech’s goalkeeping counterpart Neuer had shown in the first 45minutes how effective he can be and Cech did the same – showing his experience and nous by standing up as late as he could and ended up denying the lethal Pole.
Then, Arsenal scored.
A high free kick from Santi Cazorla should have been standard fare for the previously impressive Manuel Neuer. After Petr
Cech pulled out a fantastic save from Lewandowski, maybe Neuer crumbled under the pressure of a game of goalkeeping Top Trumps with Cech, as he attempted to grab/slap the ball out of the box. Unbeknown to him, the sub Olivier Giroud was flying in and mid stumble, he bundled the now loose ball in with one brush of his cheek.
Giroud will owe his fellow Frenchman Koscielny a pat on the back as his huge leap looked to have misguided the German keeper and Giroud was on hand to profit and send the Gooner masses into raptures.
The German footballing machine had a large French spanner in its works and was now in a bit of trouble.
Alexis Sanchez – showing glimpses of his electric form this season but also his alarming habit of losing possession – was then replaced with Keiran Gibbs as Arsene Wenger made his move to shut up shop. Gibbs would be the more attacking of the two left-backs on the pitch but would provide excellent support for Nacho Monreal on the flank. Sanchez had earned the rest although his fanatical need to play every minute will see the Chilean disagree no doubt.
The last ten or so minutes were an exercise in caution. Bayern throwing everything forward and it nearly paid off, again Lewandowski freeing himself from Koscielny but this time the Gaul recovered expertly to earn a goal kick for his side.
Bayern paid the ultimate price as Arsenal broke forward with Hector Bellerin robbing the German side of possession and his quite frankly startling pace saw him in the box within seconds. His cutback found a rampaging Ozil who took it first time. On first glance, his shot was denied superbly by Neuer, but the linesman intervened and his decision was spot on as replays showed it had crossed the line. The final whistle blew just after but the Hector and Mesut suckerpunch was the real ending of the game.
So, a 2-0 win, against the odds versus a team which has real aspirations for winning every competition it enters. Wenger once again proves doubters wrong for another week at least and the Gunners have proved they are capable of beating any opponent they face.
Santi Cazorla and Coquelin were omnipresent on the pitch. Theo, Sanchez and Ozil deserve credit for every cul-de-sac they ran down, every lost cause they chased, as did Ramsey. Giroud changed the game and his physical presence was the precise antidote needed to dissolve the grasp Munich were strangling the game with.
The real heroes were the Arsenal defence however. Hector Bellerin faced a torrid time with Douglas Costa but persevered and proved what a star he is set to become given his tender age and what he is already displaying. Nacho Monreal kept his flank watertight and was his ever reliable self. Koscielny was a beast and added yet another name to vanquished strikers that dwell in his pocket with his 90 minutes packed with action. It was Per Mertesacker though, that showed his strengths this night.
His reading of the game is often spoke of but facing off with the most lethal striker in Europe currently required more than this. Mertesacker’s positioning, his astute movement to quell most of the threat the Pole offered – Per Mertesacker was the towering performance which inspired all who lined up with him. He was the one his teammates looked to and the fact he was chiefly responsible for the clean sheet Arsenal earned was admission enough that he deserves to be above Gabriel in the pecking order. He has surely earned it.
The Gunners live to fight another day with a famous win at The Emirates which allows Arsenal to dream of a Last 16 spot. Only Bayern at the Allianz Arena next up. No problem after this result……..