It would be easy to review the Champions League knock-out ties this week containing Premier League contingent and conclude that, in terms of quality and class, Arsenal and Manchester City pale in comparison to their continental counterparts, Bayern Munich and Barcelona.
These two giants of the game are universally regarded as two of the greatest teams in recent memory, manufactured in some way in both cases by the greatest manager of recent times, Pep Guardiola. Both teams are dripping with world-class talent, enviable depth and embedded within them, is an unwavering obsession with football perfectionism. That perfectionism derives from Guardiola’s incessant, relentless drive for improvement. He instilled in his Barcelona team the golden touch of controlling football matches. Controlling the tempo, controlling the movements of the opposition defenders and above all else, controlling the outcome (the vast majority of the time at least).
Tuesday and Wednesday night showcased these admirable attributes, but with an ironic twist in the narrative. Decisive refereeing decisions handicapped the chances of Arsenal and Manchester City and left them helplessly on their knees in front of frighteningly formidable opponents.
Lukas Eriksson showed a red card to Martin Demichelis of Manchester City for a desperate trip on a Lionel Messi who was bearing down on goal with the view of producing the inevitable outcome while the Italian, Nicola Rizzoli, had no choice but to send Wojciech Szczesny packing after he collided with an Arjen Robben who had sneaked behind the Arsenal defence in one of a catalogue of errors from a dishevelled looking back-four.
Considering the sheer ruthlessness of Bayern and Barca coupled with the task of entertaining their guest a man light, the hopes of a miracle for the two English sides were next to zero. In football, sometimes there is no dramatic comebacks and heroic performances of a cinematic nature. Sometimes, teams are just well and truly battered.
One can only wonder the discomfiture Demichelis and Szczesny had to endure as their team-mates returned to the home dressing rooms at the Etihad and Emirates Stadiums with their heads bowed low. Their sparks of rash and foolhardy play cost their teams greatly in the long run. In the long run, the Champions League dreams of Arsenal and Manchester City have been shattered and put to bed for at least another 12 months.
The inescapable truth proceeded the dismissals of both players, Arsenal and Manchester City were pinned back, boxed in and run down comprehensively as the European machine’s calculatingly dismantled the resistance. Chasing shadows rapidly became chasing a lost cause. Admirable as it was, their efforts were in vain as they could only watch the ball pinged and sprayed afar right in front of their very eyes.
It was a fantastic embodiment of that famous Art of War mentality; attack, attack and attack again your opponent’s weaknesses until they are exhausted of all hope and then strike that final, decisive blow. Additionally, deploying these footballing soldiers deep into enemy territory was added reassurance that counter-attacks would be a rarity.
That’s not to say that Gerardo Martino and Pep Guardiola are modern-day footballing Sun Tzu’s. Rather they are proficient and proactive in their own style of battle. Both Bayern and Barca portrayed the aura of teams who knew, without complacency or arrogance, that this was their match to control.
They were the puppet-masters in another unfortunate Champions League tragedy for City and Arsenal. Neither team, after gaining the upper-hand, illustrated that they were to be hurried to the finish line. Patience was again that irreplaceable virtue. When presented into the hands of such exemplary practitioners, patience becomes the most potent of deadly weapons in disarming the opponents entirely.
Bayern Munich, in particular, looked ludicrously comfortable in possession against a wearying Arsenal side. Overflowing with brilliance, Guardiola’s men parked themselves in Arsenal’s side and conducted a masterclass in patient probing. Rafinha ran behind a disappointing Ozil on several occasions while Robben brought Monreal and Gibbs before him to the touch-line, leaving Kroos and Thiago to roam perilously close to Arsenal’s box.
Pass after pass after pass, Bayern were never shaken. They were never nervous about getting that elusive second away goal and killing the tie off. They knew that by exhausting Arsenal bit by bit, minute by gruelling minute, a chance would present itself. Thomas Muller was the benefactor of such a chance, heading the ball low and beyond Fabianski, who had replaced the befallen Szczesny. Before that, Toni Kroos had laid down an emphatic reminder as to why Manchester United were enquiring about his signature with a wonderfully imaginative curled shot into the top corner. A touch of sheer genius.
As the second goal nestled safely into the bottom corner, Guardiola sprung up from his seat and hopped jubilantly around the touchline as he had just watched his tactical masterplan unfold in the smoothest of manners, and not for the first time.
24 hours previously, a similar showing of merciless superiority sunk Mancunian hearts as Barcelona capitalised on Demichelis’ dismissal by controlling the match with great poise and balance. They spurned opportunities through Xavi and Dani Alves, but the latter added to Messi’s penalty to ensure that City have a mountain to climb in Catalonia.
The reckless desperation from Demichelis provides further credence to idea that he is, by some distance, Manchester City’s weakest player. A liability at the best of times due to his penchant for going to ground early (often without contacting the ball), the Argentine centre-half left his team-mates in the slaughterhouse as Barcelona thrive on plunging teams into the abyss with prolonged spells of controlled possession.
Like Bayern after them, Barcleona never looked entirely agitated when the second goal didn’t arrive immediately. They bided their time like their German counterparts and were rewarded in a similar manner; a late goal that effectively killed the tie.
Both Demichelis and Szczesny had their reasons for doing what they did. Demichelis believed that letting a four-time Ballon D’or recipient through on goal unscathed was a silly move and had to intervene, albeit not divinely. Szczesny probably had good reason to lament the laziness of his defenders but his challenge on Arjen Robben was always likely to end with him walking down the tunnel.
In the biggest matches, players need that ability to live with the lesser of two evils. Allowing Messi and Robben to confront their own destinies in all probability would have produced goals, but it would have extinguished the crucial advantage of the extra man and perhaps would have kept Arsenal and Manchester City in with a glimmer of hope.
In the end, however, moments of individual recklessness prevailed much to the dismay of their managers, team-mates and fans. The great Champions League challenge from Arsenal and Manchester City will have to put on hold for another year, barring the most unfathomable of miracles.