The Arsenal verdict: Gunners are no longer competitive in Champions League
PUBLISHED: 12:08 20 February 2013 | UPDATED: 12:08 20 February 2013
Arsenal correspondent Paul Chronnell reflects on the Gunners’ 3-1 home defeat against Bayern Munich at the Emirates.
It has been a common refrain at the Emirates over the last five years, but there really was no shame in losing so comprehensively to Bayern Munich on Tuesday night.
The Bundesliga side are European heavyweights of the first degree; four-times European Cup winners, twice finalists in the last three seasons, and with a precisely-honed team of star names mixed with some of Germany’s best young talent. They are a formidable side, and one who will expect to be heading back to north London come May, but this time for the Champions League final at Wembley.
The same was said when Arsenal exited this tournament to Barcelona in both 2010 and 2011, and when a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Manchester United demolished them over a two-legged semi-final in 2009.
Even last season against a far-from-vintage AC Milan side, there was the acknowledgement that Arsenal had come up against a European superpower, and that there was no disgrace in coming off second best, in succumbing over two legs at the knockout stages of Europe’s elite competition.
The harsh, painful truth is that Arsenal look as far from winning that elusive European Cup as they have ever done. But while there is no shame in these defeats to teams of the might of Bayern, there is a growing feeling of futility about Arsenal’s participation in the Champions League.
While qualification has been secured, metronomically, for the past 15 seasons, and the group stages – far easier if you are among the top-seeded clubs as Arsenal always are – have also been cruised through for the past 13, the buffers have been well and truly hit at the knockout stages.
The glaring exception, of course, is 2006 when the last throes of the ‘Invincibles’ side – coupled with some brilliant goalkeeping from Jens Lehmann - were enough to propel Arsene Wenger and his men to the final in Paris, where they came so tantalisingly close to winning the final with 10 men against Barcelona.
The overriding feeling after nights like Tuesday is that they will never get so close again. Of course, this last-16 tie is only at the halfway stage, and ‘anything can happen in football’ was a phrase Thomas Vermaelen used after the first leg. But the relentless machine of Bayern does not look like one that will malfunction in the Allianz Arena on March 13, even if that was where they so spectacularly failed to see off Chelsea in last year’s final.
While that result may still haunt this Bayern team, they did a very good job of not showing that on Tuesday. Everywhere you looked they oozed quality, from the experience of Phillip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger to the youthful brilliance of Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos. A team that can afford to leave a player like Arjen Robben on the bench must have some quality, and Bayern most certainly do.
There are chinks in their armour, however, and when Lukas Podolski halved the deficit, the team that lead the Bundesliga by 15 points and have won every game they have played in 2013 suddenly looked human.
But Arsenal failed to grasp the second chance that goal had given them. Even keeping the score to 2-1 would mean a glimmer of hope remained. At 3-1 behind, the Gunners must either repeat that score in Germany, or win by three clear goals. It is certainly the stuff of miracles.
Undeniably, the players will put up a fight. “There’s always a chance, we have to get three goals. We’ve got the players to do it but we know it’s a huge task,” said Jack Wilshere afterwards, already weary of another post-mortem, of more questions about where another defeat leaves this Arsenal side.
The answer to that question is hard to fathom. They are neither as bad as some have portrayed in the past week, or as good as Wenger has been insisting.
A consistent failure to show defensive solidity and mental strength when it is called for most are serial weaknesses that undermine any amount of skill, prowess or potential.
Speaking after the game to Theo Walcott, who perhaps epitomises more than most quite how talented but fragile this team is, it was interesting to hear him immediately switch his thoughts to Saturday’s Premier League game against Aston Villa.
The reality is that beating teams like Villa - by no means a foregone conclusion in itself – is more Arsenal’s level at the moment. As are the group games in the Champions League against lesser opponents.
In the last five years, without exception when the real quality has come calling in the last 16 or beyond, they have picked Arsenal off every time.
The big question now is whether the Gunners can ensure their place at the top table next season, or drop down to be among the also-rans of the Europa League. On Tuesday’s evidence, it is perhaps where they now belong.
Follow Paul Chronnell on Twitter @GazetteGooner