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As Arsenal are drawn to face Bayern Munich in the Champions League, Mrunal Nakashe looks at why the contest against the Bavarians should cause much concern at the Emirates Stadium

Thursday’s draw for this season’s Champions League Round of 16 saw the two remaining English sides drawn in, what rightly deserve to be called the ties of the round. While, the clash between Manchester United and Real Madrid, which will mark the return of former Red Devil Cristiano Ronaldo to Old Trafford,  will get many salivating, Arsenal’s clash with last year’s finalists Bayern Munich is also equally intriguing.

Arsenal, having finished second in their group, behind another German outfit Schalke, were always going to draw one of the seeded group winners. But this is not an opposition the Gunners would have readily picked given a choice, particularly with European newcomers Malaga also in the hat.

 

                      Gunners could have had an easier draw if Wenger had taken Olympiakos seriously

However, manager Arsene Wenger has no one but himself to blame for a draw that, for all good reason, looks extremely daunting for his side. With leadership of the group up for stake on the final matchday of the group stage, the Frenchman decided to field what could be justifiably called a weakened team, on a tricky away night against Greek side Olympiakos.

It is a mistake he has repeated with impunity over his last few European campaigns and he paid the ultimate price by way of a 2-1 defeat after having seen his team take the lead on the stroke of half-time. The result, which could have well been avoided, had lessons be learned from past miscalculations, saw Arsenal finish second in Group B and thereby being rewarded with this tough tie in the knockout phase.

While the French tactician may be quietly pleased about having avoided old nemesis Barcelona, there is certainly plenty to give him sleepless nights about facing Jupp Heynckes’ men. To say that the two teams have had a contrasting first half of the campaign would be an understatement of massive proportions.

Bayern have been sweeping all before them in Germany. With 17 games played, the men from Allianz Arena sit comfortably top on 44 points having established a whopping nine point lead over second placed Bayer Leverkusen. It is fair to say they are running away with the Bundesliga and look almost impossible to catch at this time.

Meanwhile, the Gunners have endured their worst start to a campaign during Arsene Wenger’s 16-year reign at the helm. After a promising start, Wenger’s men have fallen off badly and have struggled to put a consistent string of results together. They currently sit fifth in the table on 27 points, a massive fifteen points behind leaders Manchester United.

Their woes were further compounded recently by the shock loss to Bradford City - a side from the fourth tier of English football, a depressing display that saw them get knocked out of the Capital One Cup, thereby ending one of their more realistic chances of silverware.

 Arsenal and Bayern Munich season statistics 2012/13

   Team

 Played

 Win

 Draw

 Loss

   GF

 GA

Bayern Munich

    27

    21

     4

     2

    71

   15

Arsenal

   26

    12

      7

     7

    55

    44

Even in Europe the two teams have experienced varying fortunes in qualifying through the group stages. After their shock loss to Belarusian side Bate Borisov on matchday 2, the Germans bounced back impressively registering three wins in their next four games to finish group toppers ahead of Spain’s Valencia. This run of games also included a 6-1 thumping of French side Lille in Munich in early November. This result contributed in a big way to making them the leading scorers so far in this season’s competition with 15 goals.

Arsenal, however endured a rather stuttering passage through to the last 16, a theme that was in keeping with the rest of their season. They looked far from convincing in their two wins on the first two matchdays, first away to French champions Montpellier, followed by a home win against Olympiakos. But nevertheless, Wenger’s men hung on for the valuable six points. But, after that they hit the wall picking up a mere point from the two clashes against Schalke. This included an abject 2-0 defeat at home. The north London side then huffed and puffed for a vital home win against Rene Girard’s men before they rather shot themselves in the foot in Athens.

Apart from the drastic difference in the teams’ results and form, it is the gulf in the nature of performances that should worry the Emirates chief. The Bavarians have left a whole host of opponents in their wake finding the back of the net a staggering 71 times in just 27 outings so far in 2012-13. Furthermore, they have conceded only 15 goals in that period. The statistic becomes even more alarming when you consider that they will be up against a porous Arsenal defence who have already shipped 33 goals having played a game less.

                                     

                                       Bayern will be lethal in attack and solid at the back

In Thomas Muller, Mario Mandzukic, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben Bayern possess, arguably one of the finest attacking quartets in world football and yet Arsenal face the gigantic task of trying to keep them at bay with a defence that seems to have lost the plot after registering three consecutive shutouts at the start of the season.

Wenger is still struggling to settle on a first choice pairing in central defence, seemingly unable to choose between skipper Thomas Vermaelen, Frenchman Laurent Koscielny and Werder Bremen recruit Per Mertesacker. Their cause hasn’t been helped by the fact that the Belgian Vermaelen has looked a shadow of his otherwise dominant self this campaign. Moreover, Brazilian full-back Andre Santos looks woefully out of his depth and with Kieran Gibbs prone to his fair share injuries, Wenger must strengthen in that position on a priority basis when the transfer window opens in January.

Another aspect Bayern tactician Heynckes will surely look to exploit is the Gunners’ approach of zonal marking on set pieces, a strategy that has left pundits and fans alike befuddled. 

                                            Vermaelen's return to form is vital for Gunners

These are two teams with similar styles of play. Bayern like Arsenal, love to keep possession of the ball and are indeed one of the best at it. The match could also be won and lost in midfield. Worryingly for Wenger though, it is precisely in these two departments of strength that his side have been struggling lately. They have failed to hold on to the ball and on quite a few occasions have conceded cheap possession in advanced areas to give away silly goals as was seen in the home tie against Schalke where Klaas Jan-Huntelaar capitalised on the mistake and scored.

This problem is further exaggerated by the lack of a proper holding midfielder. While playing at their best, they might still struggle to overcome Bayern. So, these are errors they simply cannot afford to make.

Also Wenger’s men will have to deal with the added pressure of playing the first leg at home. They can ill-afford to produce the kind of inept defensive display, that has become a recurring sight on big European nights at The Emirates in recent seasons. Otherwise they face the real possibility that the tie could be as good as over in 90 minutes.

The winter transfer window will provide the Gunners’ boss with an opportunity to add some much needed steel at the back and some teeth in attack. But this is an Arsenal side desperately short of confidence and consumed by self-doubt. It is difficult to see what he could do in the next two months to give his team so much as an even chance of progression to the quarterfinals.

Bayern are surely overwhelming favourites to go through over two legs and if as expected, Arsenal do bow out of the competition at this stage, that too for the second season in a row, most of the blame will inevitably fall at Wenger’s door. But, then again his team selection for the game in Greece has done nothing to suggest, that making it to the final at Wembley tops his list of priorities.

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