In terms of giving the fans some pride, as I’d stressed the importance of in my article a few days ago, it was mission accomplished for Arsenal in Munich last night. But it was so close to being what would arguably have been Wenger’s finest hour, certainly on the European stage.
Yes he’s brought us historic wins in the San Siro (twice), the Bernebeau, and that wonderful first leg win over Barcelona, but I truly think that a 3-0 win in the Allianz Arena to take us through to the quarter-finals, with this side, would have trumped the lot. You’ll probably be aware of the stats already, but this is the first home defeat of the season for Bayern, and the first time in 44 games that they haven’t managed to score. They’re widely regarded as the best team in Europe at the moment and it wouldn’t be surprising if they went all the way and won the Champions League now.
Arsenal, in turn, have arguably their weakest squad under Wenger and are certainly going through a rough patch at the moment. As bad as we were in the first leg, to show up in Germany and play like we could win is remarkable; to silence the home crowd and rattle the continent’s in-form team in such a way is not to be snuffed at by any means.
We showed last night that we DO belong on this stage, and now we have to show that by beating the inferior Premier League teams we so often fail to show up against. Wenger has to find a way to motivate his players like he did last night on a more regular basis, because so often that seems to be the thing that’s holding us back. We can beat big teams, we can come back from seemingly insurmountable situations and scorelines – we just need to harness that concentration and mental strength so that it lasts whole games, rather than just second halves.
Hopefully this result will bring the confidence needed to finish in the top four. Hopefully the slight tweak in defence will see us perform like more of a unit from here on in; Fabianski had a very good game, having appeared in the team after not being seen for what feels like forever, and if he can keep up this form it would be very useful indeed to have an alternative to Szczesny, who is clearly struggling mentally, as suggested by Wenger’s rather vague comments about resting him. And what of Vermaelen? A real fans’ favourite for his fighting qualities since joining the club in 2009, he has surprisingly flopped under the weight of the captaincy this season. He too was dropped last night, and the partnership of Mertesacker and Koscielny looked much better. It has been suggested that Vermaelen will be stripped of the captaincy in favour of Wilshere next season, but that’s a discussion for another day; the fact is, we now have a problem with the armband for the remainder of the season – if Vermaelen is going to be on the bench and Wilshere is injured, that only leaves us with Arteta, who himself has not been in brilliant form recently. It’s an intriguing situation.
To dwell more on the future, albeit in a more positive light, Carl Jenkinson was excellent last night and showed us we won’t miss Bacary Sagna too much. Yes, we’ve been here before and maybe got ahead of ourselves, but he’s shown enough at this young age to persuade me he’ll come good, even if ideally we’d have the more experienced Frenchman ahead of him most of the time. Still, if Sagna doesn’t want to stay, recent history shows there’s little we can do to keep him; at least Jenkinson’s form means it won’t be a disaster – and I rather rate young Nico Yennaris whom we also have in reserve.
One final thought on no English teams in the quarter-finals – is this a crisis? Hardly. The media love to play up situations like this and look for a broader significance in it all, but there isn’t one, these things sometimes happen. Man City and Chelsea had very difficult groups, and Arsenal and Man Utd got very hard draws in the next round. There are a lot of strong teams emerging all around Europe, particularly in Germany, who have produced an insane number of talented young players in recent years. And of course PSG and a number of Russian teams have enormous financial backing now, which means they have caught up. As horrible as it is to be reminded of it, Chelsea did win the thing last year, so talk of an English crisis after one season is very premature.
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