Down and out? Arsenal's luckless first leg vs. Bayern has Wenger's men on the brink of elimination.

Offshore drilling, UEFA Champions League: Bayern Munich 3, at Arsenal 1


At halftime, Arsenal had 51 percent of the possession, hardly indicative of a team that had been dominated. Yet thanks to a huge disparity in execution on the final third, Bayern Munich took a 2-0 lead into halftime, a scoreline that carried the Germans through the final whistle.

Though Arsenal were able to pull one back after Lukas Podolski headed home a second half corner, the Gunners still face the daunting task in the tie’s return leg, especially after allowing Bayern Munich to restore their two-goal lead late. Having dropped their home leg 3-1, Arsenal must now find a way to score at least three on the road against a club that’s allowed only seven in league this season.

That their defensive prowess abandoned Bayern for a brief moment in the second half now seems like a footnote, but it did give Arsenal brief reason to hope. After conceding a corner along their left, FCB allowed Arsenal’s 55th minute cross to drop in the middle of their area, near the six-yard box. Germany No. 1 Manuel Neuer, committing an ironically characteristic error, failed to catch a ball that bounced for former Bayern attacker Lukas Podolski, who had gotten ball-side of Bastian Schweinsteiger for an easy goal.

It was Arsenal’s first shot of the match, a testament to that first half disparity. Despite superficially even play, Bayern still reached halftime without allowing Neuer to be tested. Conversely, their ability to execute the isolated chances they generated led to a comfortable halftime lead.

The first goal came early, an errant fifth minute cross from right ring Thomas Müller finding attacking midfielder Toni Kross just inside Arsenal’s penalty area. The German international one-timed a shot into the right of Wojciech Szczesny’s net, giving the Gunners’ goalkeeper no chance to prevent the opening goal.

Mid-way through the half, Kross hit a perfect in-swinging corner near post where defender Daniel van Buyten, having cut across Aaron Ramsey, headed onto Szczesny. The Arsenal No. 1 did well to push the shot off the line, but with Müller alone in the box to play the rebound, the Gunners found themselves two goals down after 21 minutes.

They were Bayern’s only shots of the half – Kroos’s goal, van Buyten’s header, and Müller’s putback – but they highlighted the difference between the two sides. Given as much of the ball as their opponents, the Bundesliga leaders created to clean goals. With the same amount of possession, Arsenal couldn’t challenge Manuel Neuer.

“You have to give them credit for their class,” Arsenal boss Arsène Wenger said after the match. “In the first half in patches there was a difference in quality.”

In the 73rd minute, after Arsenal’s ascendancy had forced Jupp Heynckes to sacrifice Kroos for the more defensive Luiz Gustavo, a direct ball that Mario Mandzukic chested down for Arjen Robben gave Bayern a chance to put Phillip Lahm behind the defense. The right back’s ball through the six-yard box met Mandzukic as he beat Bacary Sagna, allowing the Croat to put home München’s third goal.

It was another example of the match’s defining theme: Bayern’s superior execution. It wasn’t that the Bavarians dominated the game; rather, they converted the chances they created. Arsenal not only failed to create enough opportunities, they didn’t execute as well on the ones they did. The prime example: Substitute Olivier Giroud’s chance to equalize in the 72nd minute off a cross from Theo Walcott was drilled right at Neuer, failing to convert on Arsenal’s best chance to get back in the tie.

That execution gap (and the talent that enables it) is why Arsenal is the middle of a minor identity crisis, and despite a strong second half showing that mitigated their poor start, the night at the Emirates provided further evidence of a team that has slipped from their place among Europe’s elite.

Meanwhile, Bayern has affirmed their status as one of the two favorites to claim this year’s Champions League.

(MORE: The day’s other day, Porto holding serve against Málaga)

Man of the Match: Getting two early goals on the road, Bayern settled into an approach that inhibited standout individual performances, though Toni Kroos’s contributions to the game’s first two goals are still worth of recognition. A perfect hit on Müller’s fifth minute cross left Szczesny flat-footed as the opener sailed into his nett, while a great corner that swung in and dove at the near post allowed van Buyten to take advantage of the space in front of Arsenal’s first defender.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

source: ReutersBayern’s midfield was too much for Arsenal’s – The talent and flexibility of Kroos, Schweinsteiger, and Javi Martínez were on display on Tuesday, the trio able to control that determinative period of the first half. Though Arsenal had a good amount of the ball, the positioning of Schweinsteiger and Martinez at the base of midfield allowed Bayern to stay organized and prevent Arsenal from mounting a significant threat. Going forward, the duo (Martínez in particular) were able to take advantage of Arsenal’s trio of Jack Wilshire, Aaron Ramsey, and Mikel Arteta, moving into available space as well as helping to pressure the sitters into hasty clearances.

That they were able to get that high and provide that help was a major difference between the two sides. Bayern’s play and the quality of their midfielders allowed their two deep midfielder to push forward, the 15-20 yards of space they sometimes kept between themselves and their central defenders standing in stark contrast to Arsenal’s holders. While Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey were often 8-10 yards away from their defensive line, Bayern was content to let van Buyten and Dante deal with Arsenal’s attack.

The positioning was a metaphor for the difference between the two sides, and that was just their deployment. In terms of actual play, if you were to rank the games six starting midfielders based on their Tuesday performance, Bayern’s three would be at the top of the list while Arsenal’s ranked fourth through sixth. The Gunners’ trio were never able to have an impact on the match.

Is it worth it? Moving Cazorla wide to make room for Ramsey? – It’s difficult to say how much this mattered. Cazorla playing in the middle wouldn’t have prevented either of the first two goals.

Ultimately, that’s what dictated how this match played out; however, with Arsène Wenger electing to put Cazorla wide right in the defensive phase and leave Jack Wilshire as the through-the-middle outlet, Arsenal moved their best player farther away from the action. Although he came into the middle in the attacking phase (and Wilshire was active enough in his role trying to connect out of the back), you can’t help but wonder if Arsenal would have been a little more potent with their first half possession had Cazorla been the man receiving the ball out of the final third.

It’s not unheard of for Arsenal to play like this. When Aaron Ramsey is in the team (which he was on Tuesday), Wenger adjusts by pushing Wilshire forward and Cazorla wide. But that choice comes with costs. Today, Ramsey played a part in both first half goals (see below), Arsenal didn’t have Wilshire’s quickness and distribution deeper in their formation, and Cazorla was pushed away from the action. It’s hard to see how those costs were offset by getting Ramsey into the team.

Bayern is otherworldly right now – Even with Arsenal’s dip in quality and Bayern’s second half slip, consider the result: Bayern takes a 3-1 lead out of the Emirates.

That’s huge. For comparison’s sake, look at what Barcelona’s taken from the Emirates in recent years. In 2010-11, Barcelona was trailing after their first leg in London, eventually turning around a 2-1 deficit to advance 4-3. The year before, Barcelona was drawn 2-2 at the Emirates before routing Arsenal at the Nou Camp, 4-1.

Even for the half hour the game sat 2-1, Bayern never looked as vulnerable as Barcelona did in those games. That history left a voice in your head saying “Arsenal could do this again,” but ultimately, Bayern showed that may be on another level. Tonight’s game just wasn’t that close.

“We are currently in astonishing form,” Heynckes said after the match, “our quality is that we can punish the smallest mistakes of our opponents.”

Packaged for takeaway

  • Bastian Schweinsteiger picked up an 39th minute yellow card and will miss the second leg in Munich. Look for Luiz Gustavo to take his place along side Javi Martínez. Given the score, don’t look for it to matter that much.
  • Other Bayern yellow cards: Phillip Lahm and Thomas Müller. Losing either of them would be a significant blow.
  • Nacho Monreal, cup-tied thanks to his time with Málaga, was ineligible for tonight’s game. As a result, Thomas Vermaelen slid out to left back, with Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker getting the call in central defense. The Belgian international did a good job on Müller.
  • Aaron Ramsey failed to get to the cross that led to the first goal. It was a difficult play, one that would have required him to react immediately to Müller’s ball, but it’s one other players would have made. The same could be said on the 21st minute corner, when van Buyten ran into Ramsey’s zone to flick the ball on goal. It wasn’t a good night for the 22-year-old Welsh international, and approaching five years since he arrive in London from Cardiff City, you wonder if he’s ever going to live up to the speculation that surrounded him as a 17-year-old.

Azpilicueta: Biggest thing is “we haven’t conceded goals” since 3-4-3 switch

SWANSEA, WALES - SEPTEMBER 11:  Cesar Azpilicueta of Chelsea and Modou Barrow of Swansea City chase the ball during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Chelsea at Liberty Stadium on September 11, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte has been called a mastermind in the past for his unconventional tactics. Now, it’s those same tactics that are making him look the part of a genius yet again at Stamford Bridge.

[ MORE: Is 2016/17 the closest Premier League title race ever? ]

Since changing his system to a 3-4-3 following Chelsea’s gutting 3-0 defeat against Arsenal last month, the Blues have gone on to win three straight Premier League matches, including a recent 4-0 drubbing of Manchester United on Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge.

As important as the results are for Chelsea at the moment, the even more impressive aspect is the way that the Blues are winning matches. In their three consecutive victories, Conte’s side has failed to concede a goal, which has helped bring Chelsea to within a point at the summit of the PL.

Not only do the supporters appreciate Conte’s willingness to adapt and build a team that plays up to its greatest potential, but defender Cesar Azpilicueta is one of the many players that have uttered similar sentiments about the Italian’s tactics.

“I find it good. The most important thing for me is the team and since we changed the system we haven’t conceded goals in the Premier League,” he told Sky Sports.

“I try to play my part in the team. The most important part of the system is the spirit of the team and the way we work. The tactics make a difference but what was most pleasing was the way the team work made it happen. Some players have different roles now but we have all week to work on that and we have a very clear idea what to do in the game. We have different options from the attacking fullbacks now.”

[ MORE Guardiola says he needs “time to learn, to improve” at City ]

Azpilicueta has been one of three key figures for Chelsea at the back since Conte made the switch defensively, joining Gary Cahill and David Luiz in a partnership that looks hard to crack at the moment.

Report: Mexico open to hosting 2026 World Cup despite potential joint bid with U.S., Canada

PASADENA, CA - JUNE 09:  Chicharito #14 of Mexico celebrates after his goal in front of Andre Blake #1 of Jamaica to take a 1-0 lead during Copa America Centenario at the Rose Bowl on June 9, 2016 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Despite some talks linking a possible two or even three nation bid for the 2026 World Cup, Mexico has opened the door for El Tri to host the world’s biggest football competition for a record third time.

[ MORE: Liverpool reaches summit of latest PST Premier League Power Rankings ]

Mexico Football Federation president Decio de Maria recently told ESPN that he and his country are prepared to go ahead with a bid for the 2026 edition of the tournament with or without any hypothetically joint bid.

“I don’t know [whether we would pursue a joint bid] but the rules are already open to it,” De Maria said. “What was agreed upon makes the path perfectly clear.

“Mexico will be in the hunt to host the 2026 World Cup.”

In addition to Mexico, the United States has been considered an early favorite to be named hosts in 2026 after losing out to Qatar for the 2022 competition. The U.S., Mexico and Canada have also been linked with a joint bid between the three CONCACAF nations, as the region looks to bring the World Cup back to North America for the first time since 1994 (when the U.S. hosted).

Mexico previously hosted the World Cup in 1970 and 1986, and is one of four nations to have held the tournament on home soil more than once.

Report: Barcelona eyeing Nathaniel Clyne to fill right back gap

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 17:  Nathaniel Clyne of Liverpool clears the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield on January 17, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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When Dani Alves left Barcelona to join Juventus over the summer, the Blaugrana appeared to have the right back vacancy covered.

[ MORE: Guardiola says he needs “time to learn, to improve”

However, manager Luis Enrique appears to be turning his attention to the Premier League in order to replace the versatile Brazilian defender.

[ MORE: Tony Pulis extends contract with West Brom ]

According to SunSport, Barcelona is prepared to approach Liverpool’s Nathaniel Clyne during the winter transfer window as the Spanish giants look to lock down the right back position.

The 25-year-old is reportedly seen as a significant upgrade from Sergi Roberto and Aleix Vidal, both of whom have been tabbed as starters this season for Barcelona.

Clyne has appeared in 12 matches this PL season for the Reds, who currently sit tied atop the Premier League with Manchester City and Arsenal on points.

In addition to Clyne, SunSport reports that Glen Johnson is also a consideration for the Blaugrana, however, the 32-year-old is certainly not a first option for Enrique and Barcelona given his age and drop in form.

MLS Conference Semis preview: Compelling match-ups all around

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 23:  Landon Donovan of the United States celebrates with team mate Tim Howard after victory that sends the USA through to the second round during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Group C match between USA and Algeria at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium on June 23, 2010 in Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa.  (Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images)
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One of Major League Soccer’s most wide open new rivalries headlines a glorious quartet of first legs when the Conference Semifinals get going on Sunday.

[ MLS: Conference semis schedule ]

Toronto FC and New York City FC have squared off five times in a nascent rivalry which has seen plenty of thrills, including a 4-4 draw in NYC last season.

TFC has three draws but is yet to top NYCFC. There are so many reasons to love this match-up: the tactical face-off between Patrick Vieira of NYC and Greg Vanney of Toronto; the combined firepower of David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, and Andrea Pirlo.

Aside from the postage stamp pitch at Yankee Stadium for the second leg, almost everything about this is wonderful.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13: Khiry Shelton #19 of New York City FC carries the ball against Marco Delgado #18 and Michael Bradley #4 of Toronto FC at Yankee Stadium on March 13, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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[ MORE: JPW talks with USL commish Edwards ]

The other Eastern Conference semi sees the Montreal Impact building off its upset of DC United with a pair of matches against high-flying New York Red Bulls.

The first match is in Montreal, and the Stade Saputo is a big, loud place. Didier Drogba is no longer featuring for the hosts, but Ignacio Piatti has been as good as any players in the league (He deserves MVP consideration but it seems politically difficult to imagine it will go anywhere besides a New York team or Giovinco).

The Red Bulls haven’t lost since July 3, and feature a dominant group up the middle which includes Luis Robles, Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestand, and Bradley Wright-Phillips. This, too, shall be fun.

Over in the West, we see suddenly starring Landon Donovan and the LA Galaxy opening up against surprising Colorado Rapids.

A Donovan vs. Tim Howard match-up is in some ways an Evertonian and USMNT fan’s dream, but this will be more about whether Colorado’s “no-name” — outside of Howard and Jermaine Jones — team can stare down the star power of the Galaxy. Look for sneaky star Shkelzen Gashi to make his name known a bit more for the Rapids.

[ MORE: Spain may recall David Villa ]

Finally we’ve got the hottest team in the West, Seattle Sounders, duking it out with Supporters’ Shield and Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup winner FC Dallas.

The playoffs find Seattle as a minor favorite since FCD star Mauro Diaz went out for the year and Fabian Castillo skipped town for Turkey. But ruling out Matt Hedges, Walker Zimmerman, and head coach Oscar Pareja is something you’d do at your own peril.

For Seattle, there’s new star Nicolas Lodeiro and striker Jordan Morris, the latter who is delivering at an unreal level (even for a rookie as hyped as the Stanford man).

All of these matches have the potential for special soccer. Bring on Sunday.