Though last season’s Champions League is a distant memory, in some ways, little has changed for Bayern Munich and Arsenal ahead of the second leg of the teams’ UEFA Champions League Round of 16 matchup. When the Gunners visited Allianz Arena last March, they were a top four team in the Premier League that had little hope of winning the league title. They were down two goals before landing in Bavaria to face a team that had become Champions League favorites. Bayern, running away with the Bundesliga, merely needed to hold serve at home to reach the quarterfinals.
What followed was a result that’s given Arsenal hope ahead of Tuesday’s kickoff. Posting a surprise 2-0 win at the Allianz, the Gunners forced the away goals tiebreaker into play, with Bayern’s 3-1 win in North London allowing the eventual champions to go through.
It’s one of only two losses the European Champions have suffered in the last year, with Manchester City, in this year’s group stage, also taking advantage of Bayern team. In both cases, though, the huge advantage the Bavarians took into the game forgave their lackluster performance. Whereas the team had a two-goal edge on Arsenal ahead of the Gunners’ late charge, only a lopsided win by City in the final round of group play would have allowed the Citizens to claim first place. Like Arsenal, they would come up one goal short.
Pep Guardiola, at Bayern’s helm for the City (but not the Arsenal) result, is wary of history repeating itself, using Monday’s press conference to emphasize the need to stay aggressive.
“We have to win this game,” the two-time Champions League-winning coach said, “it doesn’t matter what we did in the first leg. This is what we have to concentrate on.”
The year’s results speak to what a focused Bayern can do. In league, Bayern have a 20-point lead on second place Borussia Dortmund after 24 rounds, having outscored their opponents 72-11. In Champions League, the Bavarians have won six of seven games, their lapse against City their only blemish. After a 2-0 win at Arsenal to open their Round of 16, Guardiola’s team are heavy favorites to claim a second-straight title.
“Well, of course 2-0 was a good result for us,” Guardiola said. “Though it is dangerous … We have to bring our ideas to fruition. The Champions League is more important than the Bundesliga and we have to do our best.”
That best will be more than enough against an Arsenal team missing a number of key components. First-choice goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny will be suspended after seeing red in game one. Theo Walcott is out, injured, as are Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshire, and both of the team’s regular left backs: Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal. Though stars like playmaker Mesut Ozil, attacking midfielder Santi Cazorla, and striker Olivier Giroud will be available, Arsenal will be severely shorthanded in Munich.
“Tomorrow we will have four German players, [Serge] Gnabry included,” Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger explained on Monday. “[Lukas] Podolski is in good shape again, [Per] Mertesacker has become a great player in England and [Mesut] Özil is a great talent, as he will show tomorrow.”
Contrast Wenger’s plight that with a Bayern team that has only one absence: Holger Badstuder, who has been gone all season. The likes of Philipp Lahm, Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos will all be available, with Mario Mandzukic, Thomas Müller, and Thiago Alcantara also among Guardiola’s potential starters. All of them are capable of starting for Arsenal. Only six of them can get the call.
They’re the players who’ll provide the forward push for the best team in the world. Against an injured and trailing Arsenal squad, Bayern shouldn’t have any problems. While we would have said the same thing last year, memories of that disappointment will keep the Bavarians on their guard. Arsène Wenger’s unlikely to take his hosts by surprise this time around.