March 15, 2013

In the run-up to Wednesday's trip to Bayern Munich, things looked gloomy. After suffering a 3-1 dismantling at home in the first leg, Arsenal were headed for the lion's den. Ever since the final whistle of that game three weeks ago, Bayern were being hailed as the finest in Europe. Arsenal supporters, including your truly, were hopeful of a good showing, but confident of advancing? Please.

And then when the team news came out the day before the game… even some of that hope faded. About the only good news we got was that Kieran Gibbs was back in the squad. The rest of it only added to the gloom. Jack Wilshere, our talisman, would miss the game – and a few more weeks – with an inflamed ankle. Our right back Bacary Sagna would also not be available. And then Arsène Wenger confirmed that Lukas Podolski would miss the trip.

And one more bomb would drop. Arsène announced that Wojciech Szczesny would stay behind. The manager explained his reasoning, “I decided to give him a breather just to refresh him and [so that he would] not be under increasing pressure, because once people start speaking about you, you think, ‘Now I cannot afford any [errors]’ and that's when you make mistakes.”

And that meant our goalkeeper would be Lukasz Fabianski, a guy who hadn’t started in a year. You could almost hear the haters sharpen their knives. What chance did Arsenal really have? After all Bayern had won their last 11 games and were unbeaten since October 28.

Granted, this was not exactly a rag-tag group of amateurs in the line-up. The back four would be made up by four full internationals. Jack would be replaced by Tomas Rosicky. And while missing Poldi on the left side would hurt, Santi Cazorla has had some of his best games for us playing over there.

And if the squad was lacking in confidence, you certainly wouldn’t find any evidence of that. Take some of these comments:

Gervinho: "We just need to keep positive and give everything we have. We all know anything can happen in football."

Jenkinson: "I do believe it’s possible [to qualify] and I think we’ve got a good chance of doing it.”

Vermaelen: “In football, anything can happen. Of course it will be difficult, but we believe in it. Football is a strange sport, so we will go for it.”

And of course, Wenger: "There is a kind of [feeling of] 'let's really play with freedom'. Let's start strong. We have to create doubt in their mind and you only do that if you have a real go."

Turns out the manager just may know what he's doing after all.

Arsenal flew out of the gates and Olivier Giroud opened the scoring within three minutes. Arsenal went close on another two occasions before Laurent Koscielny's header doubled our lead in the 86th minute. Arsenal pushed for a third in the remaining minutes, but any sense of organization had gone out the window, and the game ended with a 2-0 win to The Arsenal.

But there would no celebrating. The away goals rule meant that despite rallying back from a 3-1 deficit, Arsenal bowed out of Europe. But only the most cynical fan could come away without a sense of pride in their team.

Wenger, while disappointed that the European odyssey ended early, shared that pride, and revealed that he was not surprised that his side pushed Bayern to the limit. "I believed that it was very feasible to knock out Bayern," he said in the post match press conference. "We got that feeling when we watched the first game again. We had a plan that we respected tonight."

What was that plan? “We talked about [scoring early],” said Mikel Arteta. “If we scored in the first 15 minutes, we would start believing and the game could go our way."

Belief was a common theme. In fact, Kieran Gibbs bristled at the very idea that this squad lacks belief. "We are right to get criticism but we’re not right to be told that we don’t have character in the team… "We showed that tonight so anyone who has their doubts can have them, but the belief is there in the team."

Aaron Ramsey, meanwhile, touched on another – and perhaps more valid – criticism that has been leveled at the squad. "Consistency has been a factor over the season. When we do play well, we can give any team a run for their money and we did that tonight."

Theo Walcott insisted that the team wouldn’t dwell on the negative. "We need to bounce back from this and take the positives out of tonight, which there are a lot of… Hopefully we can recover well and have a good charge towards the end of the season."

Olivier Giroud put the disappointment of crashing out behind him and immediately looked forward. "Overall we had a good reaction after the first leg. It’s good for the future and we have to continue and focus because we have a big game in three days against Swansea."

It's a quick turnaround, but one the players must be up for. We are now very familiar with Swansea, having played them three times previously this season. There was that awful 2-0 loss at the Emirates in December, a 2-2 draw at the Liberty Stadium in the FA Cup, followed by out 1-0 win in the replay at the Emirates.

The early team news shows Sanga and Podolski are still short of fitness, and that Monreal will likely start at left-back. Rosicky looks to be a good bet to play a big part in the midfield. But the big questions will revolve around the presence of Szczesny and Thomas Vermaelen. Both sat out the game against Bayern, and it will be interesting to when they get the chance to regain their places. Wenger hailed Fabianski's "mental transformation" in the year he was out and said that rotation in central defense is always a possibility.  

Swansea has proven to be versatile and very tricky. They have a number of different options, so it is vital that we be ready for all of them. The reality is that Michael Laudrup's side have already sealed a successful season. They lifted the League Cup and earned a spot in the Europa League because of that. So the result is that they – in a sense – have nothing to play for. Of course it also means that they have nothing to lose. And we just played witness to what that can do for team. In the end it may just come down to which team carries that little bit extra motivation with them on the pitch.

The abiding lesson of Wednesday was that despite all of the ups and downs that we have faced this season, this Arsenal team is capable of very big things. And as ever, Arsène Wenger was able to sum things up very succinctly. “I believe that we played with determination, authority and cohesion. We won a big game. Let’s be inspired by that for the rest of the season."


Come on you Gunners!

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Kevin Mooney 15 Mar 2013