Perhaps they should haven’t faced the reigning European champions at this stage in the first place. Arsene Wenger’s side was placed in the ‘group of death’ in the Champions League alongside the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Marseille and Napoli. Going into the final round of fixtures, they only needed a draw against Rafa Benitez’s Napoli in an away fixture but ended up losing 2-0 and progressing into the round of 16 only thanks to a better goal difference than the Italians.
The repercussions of which were known on December 16, 2013 at the draw held at the House of European Football in Nyon. The fans waited with abated breath hoping to avoid the one team almost every side doesn’t want to play this term. By the time FC Zenit were confirmed to face Borussia Dortmund, the writing was on the wall for Arsenal, a tie against Bayern Munich awaited them.
Some may suggest that winning the group doesn’t always guarantee facing a ‘not so tough opponent’ at this stage of the competition, as was evidenced when Arsenal faced Milan a couple of seasons back. However, what winning the group does is enhance a team's chances of avoiding traditional heavyweights in the next round.
One look at the first leg result between Zenit St. Petersburg and Dortmund and it would certainly fill the heart of every Arsenal supporter with regret. A weakened Jurgen Klopp outfit, who are a massive 20 points behind Bayern domestically and have several injury concerns to deal with, ran riot at the Stadium Petrovskij winning 4-2 and thus taking a giant stride towards the quarter-finals.
Arsenal have made it into the Champions League knockout stages for the 14th consecutive time and are yet to win the competition. In the last four editions, including the present one, the London-based outfit has bowed out in the round of 16. In their last three attempts, the tie was as good as over in the first leg itself for Arsenal, leaving them to mount a spirited but ultimately unsuccessfull comeback and restore some pride or even come close to pulling off a surprise.
Against Milan, they were humbled by a Zlatan Ibrahimovic inspired side 4-0 only for Arsenal to win the return leg at the Emirates 3-0 and fall short of an epic comeback.
Last season following their exit from the FA Cup after a defeat from Championship side Blackburn Rovers, Wenger urged his players to respond. Bayern ended up 3-1 winners at the Emirates. While Arsenal did manage to beat them at the Allianz Arena 2-0, it was also a classic case of complacency on Bayern's part, who never really turned up for the return fixture.
Once again Arsenal were glorified for their performance and how close they were to upsetting the German side.
Last night too, after the 2-0 defeat in the first leg, not many would have backed Arsenal to qualify for the next round. In the first half, they kept it tight. They weren’t really set to attack Bayern from the onset and instead preferred to use Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s direct runs as their main attacking threat.
Franz Beckenbauer criticized their approach and at a half-time said, “Arsenal disappoints me. They are just staying in their half, sitting back and not creating anything. If they don't start to attack, they will surely go out.”
While the German legend was spot on, one can’t deny the fact that going all out against Bayern, a team which banks of possession and high pressing at their home stadium isn’t the smartest idea.
Arsenal did threaten on a few occasions after the introduction of Tomas Rosicky in the second half for the disappointing Mesut Ozil who was deployed on the right of the midfield. The Czech medio slowed the pace of the game to allow his side to see more of the ball and thereby create openings.
Arsenal - Serial Failures in Champions League
Bayern did look nervous which was highlighted by the fact that Manuel Neuer kicked the ball out timidly for a throw-in on one occassion. Skipper Phillip Lahm admitted, “The longer a match lasts the more you think about how you have to bring this over the line.”
It must be noted that in his post-match conference, Wenger once again pointed to the fact that they lost to a superior side.
“We got into a lot of dangerous positions but we just lacked that final cutting edge ball. At the top level you need to be able to do that, especially against a team like Bayern, and maybe tonight we were just lacking that."
“But I think the boys put in a great shift tonight and we can take away positives and be proud of our efforts,” he said.
While taking positives from the tie certainly makes sense, being ‘proud’ of their display does tend to go a bit overboard. The problem has been that Arsenal are often satisfied with their ‘nearly comeback’ performances and seldom do get the result needed on the given day in Champions League knockouts.
Yes, they did face arguably the best side in the world but to win the Champions League, one has to cross such hurdles.
Wenger and his 'moral victories' highlights a lack of ruthless ambition which is very much evident in Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho. This isn’t about favouring one above the other but about what makes one win silverware on a consistent basis.
Should Arsenal fail to win the FA Cup or the Premier League, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear Wenger utter the same words of their self-esteem being intact instead of pondering as to why they miss out on trophies.
Until that happens, Arsenal would continue to be an irreverence in any serious discussion about Champions League contenders.
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