Arsenal showed they belong in the Champions League, now they must return
- Credit: EMPICS Sport
Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich was not enough to reach the quarter-finals, but should give the Gunners confidence to finish the season strongly
So near, but so far. Arsenal bowed out of the Champions League at the last-16 stage for the third successive year, and once again it was with a feeling of what might have been.
In 2011 the main course of regret was Robin van Persie’s harsh red card in the Nou Camp just when the Gunners looked capable of shocking the mighty Barcelona.
In 2012 a lamentable first-leg display saw them all but eliminated in the San Siro after being beaten 4-0 by a Zlatan Ibrahimovic-inspired AC Milan, before a heroic second-leg comeback saw them fall just short to go out 4-3 on aggregate.
And on Wednesday night in Munich it was the same story. Mission impossible was, on paper, nearly achieved as the German side who lead the Bundesliga by 20 points were impressively, improbably, beaten 2-0 on their own patch, suffering a first defeat in any competition for 24 games.
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In reality, however, the result means nothing. Bayern go into the hat for Friday’s draw knowing they must improve if they are to avenge last season’s defeat in the final by getting their hands on the trophy at Wembley in May.
And Arsenal are out, therefore confirming an eighth successive season without a trophy. While the writing had been on the wall since the 3-1 first-leg defeat in February, the actual exit brings with it its own heartache.
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Once again Arsene Wenger’s side showed a glimpse of what they are capable of. To have beaten Barcelona, Milan and Bayern in successive seasons shows their potential but - unless you reach the final - Champions League football is played over two legs in the knockout stages, and you need to turn up for both of them. Unless of course you have Lionel Messi and are Barcelona, and then almost any situation appears to be retrievable, as Arsenal have twice discovered to their cost.
Wenger will have been musing over that first leg as the team flew back from Munich. Bayern were irresistible in that first half at the Emirates as they swept into a 2-0 lead, but it was a level they never returned to for the rest of the tie.
But Arsenal had handed them the initiative, and it is a familiar theme in big games this season. Against Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Spurs and Bayern the Gunners have found themselves 2-0 behind before they have started to play. As Wednesday night showed, the quality is there so the problem is either one of preparation, or a psychological one.
Wenger said before the game at the Allianz Arena that his side could play with “freedom”, almost with a licence to enjoy themselves. With the pressure off, as it was in Munich, anything seemed possible, even a 3-0 win that would have put them into the last eight.
To be a top side again, Arsenal need to show that character from the start of big games, they need to dominate opponents when all is at stake, not once matters have become desperate like against Milan a year ago and Bayern this week.
There were plenty of positives from Wednesday’s win, however, not least the feeling that Wenger has finally taken the kind of drastic action that many feel has been needed all season. The Frenchman has got tough.
Wojciech Szczesny has been axed and so too the captain, Thomas Vermaelen, both paying the price for gradually declining standards over the course of a season in which Arsenal’s defensive frailty has again undermined all the good work further up the field.
Wenger may have said Szczesny needed ‘a breather’ but make no mistake the 22-year-old has been dropped. His replacement, Lukasz Fabianski, now has a chance to stake his claim for the No1 spot that the elder of the two Polish keepers has felt should have been his, given that it was injury which gave the then 20-year-old Szczesny his chance back in 2011.
Szczesny took that chance, and Fabianski must now do the same. He probably won’t get another one, at Arsenal at least, and Vito Mannone would also be a contender were he not returning from injury himself. And the threat to all of them of Wenger signing a new No1 in the summer is also very real.
Szczesny must re-evaulate during his time out – his confident manner has bordered on cockiness at times, but it is not a bad attribute for a goalkeeper to have. However, his performances have simply not matched up. He has not been good enough.
Vermaelen has been erratic, too. The way he presented Robin van Persie with an opening goal at Old Trafford in November infuriated Wenger, and his defending at White Hart Lane earlier this month, most notably on Aaron Lennon’s goal, bordered on the incompetent.
Laurent Koscielny missed the start of the season with injury and has since been in and out of the side this - he has not reacted well to that rotation. But he often looks to be the best of Arsenal’s central defensive options, and underlined that in Munich. Wenger needs to decide which pair of centre-backs he prefers to play together.
That partnership could still be Vermaelen and Koscielny, as Per Mertesacker has also had a poor season, which led to transfer speculation back in Germany this week. As with the goalkeeping position, a summer purchase could also alter the picture. Wenger will get a closer look at Swansea’s impressive Ashley Williams this weekend.
There were other big plusses for Wenger in Munich – Kieran Gibbs returned and immediately showed his value with a pacy, determined display, while Carl Jenkinson put in a big shift at full-back also, as did the tireless Aaron Ramsey in midfield.
Olivier Giroud, after a recent dip in form, again looked a player capable of leading the line, while Tomas Rosicky proved he could have value again over the final two months of the season - as he did so vitally last year - especially in the absence of Jack Wilshere.
And that is where Wenger’s focus must now lie, on the 10 remaining league games that will determine whether or not they get to test themselves against the likes of Bayern next season, or drop out of Europe’s elite competition for the first time in 15 years.
A look at the teams in the last eight only highlights the sense of missed opportunity. While Barcelona and Real Madrid will take some beating, the lesser lights of Malaga, Galatasaray and Paris St-Germain are not teams Arsenal should be looking at in envy.
The result and performance in Munich demand that Arsenal remain at this level, but their participation is a privilege, not a right. If they can consistently show that aptitude over the next two months, starting at Swansea on Saturday, retaining their top four and European status should be within their grasp. But they have it all to prove.
Follow Paul Chronnell on Twitter @GazetteGooner