In a season that has largely consisted of dominant performances, host Bayern Munich were sunk in battle at their Allianz Arena home by underdogs Arsenal Wednesday, with the London side upsetting the German giants 2-0. Fortunately for Bayern supporters, their club won the war, still advancing to the Champions League quarterfinals due to their away goal margin in the 3-3 aggregate final score. Jupp Heynckes’ club joins fellow Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund, along with Barcelona, Real Madrid, Malaga, PSG, Juventus and Galatasaray in awaiting Friday’s draw to discover their next opponent in the knockout round.
The disparity in domestic results and popular perceptions of the two clubs were glaring coming into their second meeting. Arsenal have suffered a series of major disappointments, being eliminated from the League Cup in December on penalties by League Two side Bradford City and being dumped out of the FA Cup a month ago by Blackburn Rovers of the second division. Though in fifth place in the EPL table, their loss to London archrivals Tottenham ten days ago only increased the pressure on veteran Coach Arsene Wenger, who saw his team easily beaten 3-1 by Bayern at the Emirates. If there were not enough pressure on the Gunners, they also carried the weigh of English footballing expectations, being the last EPL team left in the Champions League (the tournament’s quarterfinal round had not been absent at least one EPL side in 17 years).
Meanwhile, everything has been going Bayern’s way, from the world-wide admiration resulting from the signing of future Coach Pep Guardiola, to their unassailable perch atop the Bundesliga, to their recent Pokal disposal of their only current rivals for German football supremacy, Borussia Dortmund. Even a rare potential slip last weekend against Fortuna Düsseldorf was rectified by Heynckes’ team, as they twice pulled back from deficits to beat F95 3-2.
Both clubs came into the match missing key players. For Jupp Heynckes, injury deprived him the use of Franck Ribery, while suspensions sidelined Bastian Schweinsteiger and Jerome Boateng. Both Ribery and Schweinsteiger were starters in the first leg of the series, and were replaced by Wednesday by Arjen Robben and Luiz Gustavo, while Boateng had been back in the starting lineup for Bayern’s last three league matches but missed the first leg. Wenger was without the influential Jack Wilshere, and substituted out captain Thomas Vermaelen, while also making a change in goal, bringing in Lukasz Fabianski for 22 year-old Wojciech Szczęsny.
On a cold, slippery evening at the Allianz, the Gunners quickly earned the confidence-boost required. In the third minute, Theo Walcott sent a cross from the right past the heels of Dante to Olivier Giroud, who roofed a short-range blast into the Bayern net to open a 1-0 lead and decrease Bayern’s aggregate margin to only 3-2. Bayern regrouped from the shocking start, and entered the game in attack, but were unable to score from continual off-target and hopeful(less) long-distance blasts, unable to work much of serious danger towards the Arsenal goal.
The missing threat of Ribery was obvious, as was the intelligence and direction of Schweinsteiger, but Bayern were able to avoid any more damage and were relatively secure with their 3-2 two-leg and away goal advantage entering into halftime. Despite being unable to score, Bayern had the halftime lead in possession (57%), while leading the Gunners in shots taken (8-1) and corner kicks (2-0). Manuel Neuer had yet to make a save.
The Bavarians peeled off two scoring chances in the opening minutes of the second half, but both Toni Kroos and Robben missed, and it appeared that Arsenal had spent their opportunity to even-up the series. Robben had a golden opportunity to secure Bayern’s advance in the 68th minute, breaking open on the Arsenal goal following a superb Thomas Muller backheel, but the Dutchman shot high enough to Fabianski’s left for the Pole to come up with a crucial save to keep Arsenal’s slimming hopes of a miracle comeback alive.
But with a mere fifteen minutes remaining, Arsenal gained a second wind and increasingly looked poised to score again. Gunner’s substitute Gervinho foreshadowed Arsenal intentions as he barely missed in the 79th minute, and in the 86th the worst nightmares of Bayern fans leapt forward in the collective soul of the Allianz crowd as French defender Laurent Koscielny headed in goal from Santi Cazorla to even the aggregate score with four minutes left in regulation. Bayern would advance by their away goals earned in London, if they could hold off the resurgent visitors for the four minutes, plus injury time, remaining.
They did. A needless foul by Mario Gomez gave Arsenal a free kick chance in Bayern territory, but it came to naught. Two fouls by the Gunners’ Mikel Arteta drained away precious seconds and possession for the underdogs, with Müller and Robben able to successfully waste more time down by the corner flag in Arsenal’s half of the pitch, and the Bavarians limped into the final eight of the Champions League, shaken but ultimately successful.
Bayern’s near-meltdown revived memories of last season’s Champions League final debacle against Chelsea, and punctured the idea of Bayern invicibility in 2013. Despite always having the edge in possession (55% for the match) and launching 21 shots in the direction of the Arsenal goal (as opposed to only 5 attempts from the Gunners) and a 6-1 edge in corner kicks, Bayern appeared much too vulnerable for a club of their current form and talent. Their finishing was dreadful as Robben and Kroos combined for 13 shots, with few carrying any threat at all, and at least several corner kicks were taken without focus, as line-drive deliveries were easily headed away by the first wave of Arsenal defenders.
Without Ribery, Bayern’s attacking pattern converged predictably more and more to the right as the game wore on. Both strikers Mario, starter Mandžukić and sub Gomez, were toothless as neither could get off a shot while Müller launched several threatening crosses to find no Bayern teammate anywhere near the front of the Arsenal net. While Fabianski’s excellent play was largely responsible for Bayern’s first European shutout of the season, Bayern’s own shoot-first, pass-second attack mentality in the opponent’s final third failed to burden the keeper who was dusted off for the match after appearing only once for Wenger this season.
Talk of Bayern “mental frailty” will no doubt resume no matter how the club performs in league play. Beginning with the next round of Champions League play in early April, footy fans will be able to determine if such talk is legitimate, or if instead, Wednesday’s performance was simply an off-day for a team without Ribery and Schweinsteiger that, when all is said and done, finished the job and advanced.
Bayern: Neuer – Lahm, van Buyten, Dante, Alaba – Martinez, Luiz Gustavo – Müller, Kroos (Tymoshchuk 81′), Robben – Mandzukic (Gomez 73′)
Arsenal: Fabianski – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Ramsey (Gervinho 72′), Arteta – Walcott (Oxlade-Chamberlain 72′), Rosicky, Santi Cazorla – Giroud