Jack Wilshire announced this week that, if Arsenal are to have any chance of succeeding in this season’s Champion’s League, they must dig deep and summon the spirit of Chelsea, who defeated Arsenal’s opponents tonight Bayern Munich to win the European competition last May. “Chelsea are an inspiration for everyone,” said Wilshere. “They weren’t having a good season and OK, they got a bit lucky in some games, but they showed great character and we need to do that. We need to come together as a team.” The writing already appears to be on the wall for the North London side; ruled out of the Premier League’s title race long before tonight and a double-dose of domestic dismay at the hands of lower-league Bradford and Blackburn spells out a season bordering on disaster for a side who gloriously earned “Invincible” status less than a decade ago. As we know in life, and in football, much can change in the space of a decade and it appears Arsenal are not immune to such a cliché as the effects of the passing of time. Since their unprecedented feat of invincibility in the English game, they have failed to emulate the same kind of eye-catching form which, as a result, has left them in a barren spell with no major honours since they defeated Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup. Eight years and counting.
The atmosphere around the Emirates Stadium rang up with a cacophony of boos and jeers at a team who had just lost against a lower-league team in the FA Cup for the first time in Arsene Wenger’s seventeen-year spell with the club. Twelve months on from a 7-1 mauling at the hands of a ruthless Gunner’s side which epitomised the tone of Blackburn’s year in 2012, they came under the new stewardship of Michael Appleton and increased their unbeaten run in all competitions to an impressive seven. The fact that Arsenal had just seen another precious opportunity for silverware slip through their grasp was painful to them, the fact that their executioner was a life-long supporter, Colin Kazim-Richards, was undoubtedly an excruciating reminder of their apparent downfall. Three days on from one of the poorest results he has overseen during his decorated tenure, Wenger must somehow rally his troops sufficiently in time for the visit of the runaway leaders of the Bundesliga and four-time European champions, FC Bayern Munich. Wenger illuminated an “immature lack of focus” during Saturday’s defeat to Blackburn in his post-match conference, demanding that they shape up for one of the sternest examinations they are ever likely to face, attempting to employ themselves as the immovable object in the eye of the storming, unstoppable force that is Bayern. The past couple of years have severely wounded the German beast. Shockingly defeated on home soil in the Champions League final last season to Chelsea, the poignant European despair was compounded by protracted misery on the home front. For the second season running, Borussia Dortmund had pipped them to the title, adding salt to raw wounds by battering Munich in the German Cup final 4-2 to announce their dominance at the top of the German game.
However, perhaps increasingly spurred on by another national team shortcoming in Euro 2012, Bayern Munich have blown their competition to proverbial smithereens this season. They have opened up an insurmountable fourteen-point gap at the Bundesliga summit and comfortably negotiated a Group F consisting of Valencia, Lille and BATE Borisov in the autumn phase of the Champions League. But most impressively, and paradoxically worrying for Arsenal fans, is that they haven’t conceded a single goal during their six matches in the Bundesliga in 2013 since returning from their annual mid-season break. A sufficient and effective tightening of the screws has left the likes of strong German counterparts Stuttgart, Wolfsburg and Schalke without a solution in the past month. Scouts and deputies of Wenger will be acutely aware of the strength and power of this Bayern side. Following the disaster of last season’s second-place finishes, there were questions over whether or not Bayern, once feared as the “ultimate German superpower of football” could recuperate after falling hard in the face of Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea. Those questions could not have been answered more authoritatively or decisively. Bayern have been simply magnificent. A certain statistic that forlorn Arsenal fans would be advised to avoid is Bayern’s current away form. They have won 10 out of 11, a remarkable feat of dominant visitations. Arsenal have managed to defeat Barcelona and Milan in the past two seasons at home, but there is something inconceivable about the idea that they can dismantle this tremendous German footballing mechanism tonight at the Emirates, as crucial and potentially consequential a tie it is.
It doesn’t take much more than a simple analysis and overview of the squad to see what Arsenal have in store. Manuel Neuer guards the goalposts like a peaking Oliver Kahn used to for Bayern, the aforementioned lack of goals conceded gives an indication as to the extent of his credentials. In defence, so often seen as one of the highlighting elements of German football down the years, they acquired the services of the Brazilian centre-back Dante in the summer to consolidate the presence of vastly experienced Daniel Van Buyten and former Manchester City player, Jerome Boateng. Making up the hardened defensive core of the team is club captain and full-back extraordinaire, Phillipe Lahm. Devastating at times going forward and armed with a deceptively wonderful long-range strike, Lahm is arguably the most well-rounded full-back on the planet. Precise timing of tackles and a tremendous reading of the game is well supplemented by a relentless drive to win. Like so many in this Bayern side, Lahm is a man on a mission. No player fits that category more precisely than long-serving midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, who famously spurned a decisive penalty in the shootout against Chelsea in May and was left so shaken with despair and rage that he refused to shake the German President, Joachim Gauck’s, hand in deflated humiliation. He is as willing as anyone in this Bayern side to atone for his errors, and now that the chances avenging the defeat of last year become that little bit closer to realisation, Arsenal can expect an all-out effort from the midfield supremo. He has as his deep-lying lieutenant Javi Martinez, who Bayern acquired in the summer for a mind-boggling £35 million. As extortionate as it seemed for a player who had never set foot out of the Basque country or played in the Champions League, a quintessential “calf-biter” is exactly the type of player that can curtail Arsenal’s aspirations of free-flowing attacks. Not afraid to get stuck in, he is the type of player who always seems to be doing the dirty work, not because it is left to him, because he thrives on it. A glance at the forward line would bring shiver the spine of most. Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben form the most intoxicating one-two punch of wingers in the modern game to present Arsenal’s shaky defence with problems aplenty. Ribery is an esteemed competitor, having an outstanding season in the Bundesliga, he is eager to once again prove that he is worth his salt when it comes to the big games and is determined to rip Arsenal to shreds every chance he gets. A direct and aggressive attacking style, Ribery is a classic winger who goes past defenders for fun, whipping crosses onto the heads of prolific marksmen such as Mario Gomez and Mario Mandzukic, the former sitting just one shy of a century of goals for his club. To counter this dizzying concoction of talent, Arsenal will be pinning much hope and faith onto the young shoulders of Jack Wilshire. The 21-year old England international has caught the eye of many, including Schweinsteiger. The German international pinpointed Wilshire out as the main threat to Bayern during his pre-match conference, declaring that the young dynamo is one of the best in Europe at what he does. “I don’t think one player makes the team but in his position he [Wilshere] is one of the best there is, he is a difficult player,” Schweinsteiger said. “It has a lot to do with his size. The typical English payer is over 1m 85cm [6ft 1in] but Jack Wilshere [5ft 8in] is very dynamic, he has a very good left foot and he has a really good eye for the way he views the players around him. Those are his strong qualities.”
He has that quality in abundance, without a doubt, but also has the attitude and professionalism to match. Seventeen grueling months on the fitness tables and in the hands of Arsenal’s club physicians, Wilshire has been in scintillating form since returning, showing an unrelenting appetite and a will to succeed that has increased substantially due to his long spell on the sidelines. He has also recently shown that he is prepared to step up to the tougher challenges, being lauded for his tough and efficient display against Brazil for England two weeks ago. In addition to his precocious talents, Arsenal may look upon summer arrival Santi Cazorla as means of creative inspiration as well in the middle of the pitch. Cazorla arrived from Malaga in a £15m deal and has impressed many with his seamless transition into the English game. Arsenal will need both of these creative talents to be working in tandem if they are to break down the recently impenetrable fortress that is the Bayern defence. Lukas Podolski will be given the chance to show his former employers what they discarded this evening as the former Bayern man lines up to face them with a not-so-hidden agenda. The 27 year-old seems indispensable on the national side, having amassed a staggering 107 caps, which for an outfield player with time still on his side is extremely commendable. However, he never hit the heights that his talent promises while he was at the German giants. Having left his beloved FC Cologne in 2006, Podolski only managed 15 goals in 71 league appearances and was subsequently relegated to the second-string Bayern team, Bayern Munich II for the 2007-2008 season, before being sold back to the club he had left in 2009. 12 goals in 31 games for Arsenal in all competitions is a modest return, but he has shown glimpses of brilliance and signs that he may peak whilst at the London club, especially in the Champions League where he has scored 3 in 5. He can be deployed effectively on the left, despite not being his preferred role, he has shown to be quite as creative as Wilshire or Cazorla. Possessing a brilliant left-foot, he had a hat-trick of assists to help Arsenal overcome West Ham in the Premier League last month. This kind of winged wizardry is exactly what Wenger will be hoping for if he opts to start him against his old club.
The German superpower comes to London this evening armed with a dangerous thirst for revenge, hoping to make Arsenal their first knockout victims on route to Wembley. Focus has switched in the continental game slightly as the axis of media scrutiny surrounds Pep Guardiola’s decision to make Bayern his next club in the summer. With a 67-year old Heynckes stepping down, the most coveted manager in world football will implement his famed philosophy on an already brilliant side. Tonight is an opportunity to showcase the health of German football and also to correct arrogant naysayers who question Guardiola’s decision why he opted for Germany as opposed to England or Italy. They come in imperious form, and will hope to continue their impressive away form in order to make the return leg at the Allianz Arena in three weeks time the most comfortable of proceedings. Arsenal, on the other hand, are desperately trying to salvage something from their season, something which appears to be a recurring motif in the post-Invincible era. The Champions League is the only antidote for another failed season in the domestic sphere, they will be hoping to channel the spirit of Chelsea and balance the books with a much-needed European success. Failure to do so, may trigger another mini-exodus of star quality from the ranks, or even more deeply concerning, the end of Arsene Wenger’s reign.