UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Preview: Arsenal FC vs. FC Bayern Munich
Tradition and culture are so often associated with Bayern. The Munich side is a club which prides itself on its tradition. Most of all, it prides itself on a winning mentality. That mentality has been put to the toughest of tests in the past couple of years. Bayern München has not won a trophy in two seasons. That, in itself, is not the trend Bayern wants to set.
With the Bundesliga seemingly wrapped up, Bayern has the chance to concentrate more on the cup competitions, especially on the one which caused them two heartbreaks in the past three seasons. The German Giants will kick start their hunt for the poisoned chalice this year against Arsenal FC.
Arsenal's most recent showing against Blackburn revealed all their problems. They controlled possession but produced almost nothing in the final third. They were shocked by a strange goal. They lacked creativity. Their most recent match in the Premier League was against Sunderland. Arsenal huffed and puffed but managed to cross the line thanks to a goal from Santi Cazorla. What most probably do not realize is Arsenal was actually in good form prior to the showing against Blackburn.
The Gunners had been unbeaten in five, drawing one and winning four. Former Bayern player, Lukas Podolski, has been in good form too. He set up three goals against West Ham and scored one himself. He struck against Stoke more recently in a 1-0 victory. He was rested against Blackburn in the FA Cup.
As far as his old club is concerned, they are simply scintillating at the moment. Bayern is yet to concede a goal this year. They have won all their matches in 2013, at least by two goals. The more recent victory against Wolfsburg was slightly labored it must be said. The attack did well but the defence was not as convincing as usual. The rather rusty Luis Gustavo filled in for Javier Martinez in this match. That was perhaps one of the reasons.
Bayern was flawless against Schalke last week. Manuel Neuer resorted to heading with Thomas Muller that day. The performance against Mainz was also quite brilliant. The first two performances in the league following the winter break against Greuther Fürth and Stuttgart were not brilliant; however, Bayern showed in those two matches that they can win even when they are not at their best.
For Arsenal, it is not too difficult to name the main man. It is all about the English youngster Jack Wilshere. When Wilshere plays, Arsenal flows. He starred in England's recent win over Brazil; his stock has risen further since. Arsene Wenger waited for a year for his star man to recover from a horrendous injury. Wilshere has come back bigger and better.
Most importantly for Arsenal fans, this player loves his club. He is grateful to them unlike Robin van Persie. He plays for the love of the Arsenal badge. The young midfielder is extremely passionate. Of course Arsenal has other stars too. Santi Cazorla is an intelligent and nifty player; however, sometimes, he makes selfish decisions.
Theo Walcott is having the best season of his career currently. The aforementioned Podolski has done well so far. Tomas Rosicky and Abou Diaby are two excellent midfielders who currently star for the Gunners.
In Bayern, every single player is a star. However, while shutting him down does not necessarily mean shutting Bayern down, Bayern's heart and soul is Bastian Schweinsteiger. Whether he is injured or not, Schweinsteiger is an absolute necessity to Bayern. He does the little things in midfield which nobody does which helps his side control a match. He controls the pace of a match and he is Bayern's chief distributor. He is an all rounder; he plays every single role in the side to perfection whenever required.
Another indispensable player is of course Thomas Müller. Müller has a "winning affect" on Bayern. He is one of the most intelligent footballers in the world. He can dribble as well but his intelligence outshines his other talents. He scores strange goals which nobody else would score. At his tender age of 23, he has seen it all. He has not won it all though.
Franck Ribery is another player without whom Bayern tends to suffer at times. Toni Kroos is Bayern's creative soul. He finds those impossible passes that nobody else finds. He is a true attacking midfielder. He has added defensive skills to his armor to make his game much better. Kroos can dominate the best of midfields quietly. Dante is an absolute rock for Bayern at the back.
And finally, let us not forget Manuel Neuer. Neuer's lack of saves is portrayed much too many times in the media However, he has often made game changing saves. Last season, when Bayern and Real Madrid played in Munich, Neuer pulled off an unbelievable save from Karim Benzema in the seventh minute. That save turned out to be a match winning save. More recently, against Wolfsburg, at 0-1, Diego hit an absolute blockbuster of a freekick. Neuer saved it in the nick of time. Without that save, Bayern might not have gone on to win the match.
Both sides play a similar brand of football. Their focus lies in beautiful football on the pitch. Arsenal relies more on possession than on creativity. Their pace is slower than that of Bayern but they do have players who can increase the pace when at their best. Bayern creates more in the final third; they do control possession but is nowadays equally potent with little of it. They press a lot more than Arsenal; they hassle the opposition continuously.
As far as strengths and weaknesses are concerned, Bayern's greatest strength is undoubtedly the boundless creativity they have in the side. Defensively, they are great too even though they do not have to do too much work at the back. Daniel Van Buyten, considered a liability by some, has consistently been in the lineup this year and has performed well. Bayern has conceded seven goals in the league, none of which have come this year. In the Champions League, they conceded the same number. However, three came in one horrible day against BATE. There are really no such weaknesses in the side anymore. The only complaint is perhaps that the defense is still slightly vulnerable.
For Arsenal, the strength is also the midfield. The weakness is of course the defense. Recently, Arsenal has tightened up and has stopped conceding so many goals. However, they do not look convincing at the back. Like Bayern, one of their strengths is counterattacking. They have a good striker, like Mario Mandzukic, in Olivier Giroud.
Martinez is said to be making progress and is expected to be ready by Tuesday, Aside from the injured Holger Badstuber and the suspended Jerome Boateng, Jupp Heynckes can call on all his players for this one. Heynckes, most importantly, has a strong bench to choose from. For Arsene Wenger's side, the main problem is the left back spot. Kieran Gibbs is injured while Nacho Monreal is not eligible for Champions League play. Thomas Vermaelen has returned from injury as has Wilshere.
Probable Starting Lineups
Bacary Sagna- Laurent Koscielny- Per Mertesacker- Thomas Vermaelen
Jack Wilshere- Mikel Arteta
Theo Walcott- Santi Cazorla- Lukas Podolski
Philipp Lahm- Dante- Daniel Van Buyten- David Alaba
Bastian Schweinsteiger- Javier Martinez
Thomas Müller- Toni Kroos- Franck Ribery
Bayern has convinced thoroughly in league play this season. However, the same cannot be said about the Champions League. They were brilliant against Valencia, Lille and BATE in Munich. They were not convincing against tough tackling Lille in France but came away with a 0-1 win. They were awful in Belarus against BATE. In Valencia, they did just enough to make sure they qualified for the next round in a 1-1 draw.
Arsenal meanwhile started off well but came unstuck against a Schalke side that really matured in the Champions League this season. They finished second in the group. Wenger and his Arsenal team have often referred to Chelsea's victory last season. Any talk of that game is definitely forbidden in Munich. However, it is after all that loss along with Borussia Dortmund's double last season which is propelling Bayern to record breaking heights this season.
This is set to be a very interesting game. Bayern has not convinced away from home in Champions League play this season. On paper, Bayern would be the clear winner. However, that was the case in last season's finale too. We all know how that ended. Complacency has often been a huge problem for Bayern. It could be a problem again. Also, Bayern sometimes tends to not turn up. This has happened only once this season; however, it did happen in the Champions League in Belarus.
Arsenal definitely has a chance. The first leg is after all in their home stadium. Bayern however is hungrier and better than they have been in a decade. They are currently second in the UEFA club rankings behind Barcelona.
Who will win this match? Let me hear your thoughts.
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