Why the Pressure Is on Bayern Munich as Much as It Is Arsenal
Bayern Munich are in stupendous form. Jupp Heynckes' team are 15 points clear atop the Bundesliga and have won their first five games back after the winter break without conceding a goal. Sehr, sehr gut.
On Friday night, Bayern put away Wolfsburg 2-0, with the prolific Mario Mandzukic scoring a fine overhead kick and Arjen Robben—resigned to a peripheral role at the moment—collecting his first goal of the season.
Robben, one of Europe's most consistently effective wide players, came off the bench. That's how frighteningly good Bayern are at the moment; they might start the Dutchman in Tuesday's Champions League tie against Arsenal, they might not. It won't alter the fact they are widely expected to inflict humiliation on Arsene Wenger and his team.
Arsenal vs. Bayern, by football writers, casual observers and diehard fans alike, is being billed as a slaughter-in-waiting.
On one side you have Wenger's fickle and fragile Gunners, fresh from FA Cup defeat to Championship Blackburn and with their seven-season trophy draught a good few European miracles shy of becoming eight. The Emirates crowd booed the final whistle on Saturday and large swathes of Arsenal fans are ready to bid Wenger adieu.
The mood around Arsenal is apocalyptic. The mood in Munich, meanwhile, is one of unbridled hope. Bayern fans are not just relishing every moment of this season, but also the knowledge Pep Guardiola will take over this summer and likely bring some of the world's best players with him. Quite the boost for all concerned.
With the way Bayern has been destroying teams, how worried are Arsenal fans right now?— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) February 16, 2013
These are heady times to be a Bayern fan; they are hellish ones to be a devoted Gooner.
But just because Bayern are in the ascendancy doesn't mean they won't come to the Emirates with some pretty big demons to deal with. In fact, you might argue Bayern are under more pressure than Arsenal to advance from this most attractive of last-16 ties.
Not since 2001 have the Germans claimed Europe's biggest prize—a lengthy wait for a club of such stature and one they desperately want to end. Twice in the last three years they've been runners-up, and in last season's final, they managed to completely outplay Chelsea yet somehow fall on penalties before a partisan crowd at the Allianz Arena.
It would be hard to imagine a bigger anticlimax, had Bayern not experienced Manchester United's dramatic comeback in the 1999 final, of course.
They came back from that one with a title two years later. A similar redemption is within reach for the class of 2012-13, but to achieve it Bayern will have shut out memories of Munich last May and escape the spectre of a night on which expectancy was at its zenith and they failed to meet it.
Wenger is not the only coach with an agenda. Heynckes won a Champions League with Real Madrid in 1998 but will badly want to put right what happened last season and sign off with a European title. A catharsis awaits and the happiest of walks off into the sunset.
The relative trajectories of Bayern and Arsenal suggest his team will have it easy across two legs, but Heyneckes only need look back at a tape of last season's final to know that nothing is certain in football. Bayern have been brilliant, but they will be measured on what happens in Europe from here forward.
With that comes a pressure they've not yet felt this season. And in Arsenal, they face an unpredictable wounded animal in a corner. If Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla and Co. get going as Wenger's Arsenal did against Milan last season, anything is possible at the Emirates.
The smart money says Bayern, but the smart money said Bayern last May also.
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