Monday, February 18, 2013

Bayern: No Expectations

You could scour London looking for a sane man to support the notion that Arsenal will progress beyond the second round of the Champions League; it would be a forlorn search.

There is no reason to expect anything other than a clear defeat over two legs.

This is Wenger's worst Arsenal team by a distance.

The Blackburn defeat may well have been the result of complacency, and the Gunners may well raise their game for Bayern.

But after years of steady decline, the line between success and failure is no longer defined only by mentality and motivation, it is now a question too of quality.

Arsenal, though far from completely lacking in it, have far less than they did in the recent past.

If they weren't good enough then, they certainly aren't now. Because if not superior quality, what else do they have in their favour?

To beat better opposition, you need a plan, and you need a backbone.

But Wenger doesn't do tactics, and Arsenal are so often spineless on the big occasion.

This last point is a particularly painful one, because for so long youth and callowness could be used as a convenient and indeed convincing excuse.

Now, the squad and the first team boasts several experienced heads, but the old problems of complacency (against the poor teams) and a lack of belief (against the good ones) continue to surface.

Bayern are the should-be-holders after Chelsea's flukey win last season, runaway leaders of the Bundesliga and among the favourites to triumph in Europe. For them, the Emirates will hold no fear. They may be vulnerable to wily, resourceful opponents who will sit deep and disciplined and wait for a chance to strike on the break. But for Arsenal, there are no precedents for such a performance. If it comes, it will come from nowhere. They have had it done to them so many times, by the great and the good and even by Championship Blackburn, but they've never done it themselves

If today affords no optimism, we can search for it in memories. In 2006, Arsenal were enduring what was, at the time, a shockingly bad domestic season, struggling to win on the road and struggling to fill the Vieira-shaped void in central midfield. Fourth place would be secured eventually, on the last day, after Spurs had led the way for most of the season. When the Gunners were drawn against Real Madrid in the first knockout round of the Champions League, most expected a drubbing.

Arsenal plundered a memorable win at the Bernebeau, via Henry's classic individual goal, and then progressed after a bonkers, unbelievably goalless slugfest at Highbury.

Unfortunately, it's hard to envisage a similar outcome this time around. That was bloated, late Galactico era Madrid, still boasting legends like Zidane, Raul and an ever-inflating Ronaldo and celebrities like Beckham. They were lacking in hunger, lacking in organisation, and Arsenal took sweet advantage, to kickstart a run that brought them to the very brink of that elusive European success.

And Arsenal themselves, while in something of a transitional phase (one that's arguably continued ever since!)     still boasted their own attacking riches. Henry was enjoying his last season of true greatness. Players like Pires and Ljungberg were now plainly saving their best for Europe. Gilberto Silva was a selfless World Cup winner who shielded the defence and left the fancy stuff to the others. Fabregas alongside him was busy announcing himself as one of Europe's great young talents.

That said, there were reasons to be very surprised by that European run. In league games, Arsenal's defending was often shambolic. Senderos sometimes appeared a liability, embarrassingly vulnerable to fleet footed attackers. Because both Cole and Clichy were injured, Flamini was playing at left back. And with Lauren also struggling for fitness and form, a lunatic called Eboue was marshalling the right side of the defence, in front of the similarly insane but sometimes brilliant Lehmann.

Somehow, this motley crew, along with the then still reliable Kolo Toure, conjured clean sheet after clean sheet. Arsenal, basically, need something that weird to happen again. Starting tomorrow night.

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