Positives Taken from Arsenal's Win Against Bayern Munich
In a competition as fiercely contested as the Champions League, two away goals are usually good enough to book a place in the next round of the competition, after a two-legged affair of course.
Let me use the first knockout fixtures of this season's competition to verify my claims. Unlike Juventus and Galatasaray that banged in an impressive three goals in enemy territory, Paris St.-Germain, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund scored two goals on their travels and they all booked quarterfinal berths.
Arsenal on the other hand, had a daunting task at hand but still managed to score two away goals in a feared ground like the Allianz Arena. However, after a shocking first-leg showing, the excellent away performance came to nothing, as the painful away-goal rule ensured that the Gunners are gearing up for their eighth consecutive trophy-less campaign.
I hate to go down memory lane, but the first-half goals from Toni Kroos and Thomas Mueller were avoidable to say the least. As expected, Arsenal's schoolboy defending against a ruthless opposition like Bayern was enough to hand the Bavarian outfit a chance in the quarterfinals. Lukas Podolski offered his side some hope but Mario Mandzukic's effort drove the nail in Arsenal's coffin.
After the first leg, the Gunners were more or less outgunned, outclassed and out of the Champions League.
A fortnight later, an early goal from Olivier Giroud restored some hope for the Gunners, but Laurent Koscielny's goal was too little, too late. On the night, Arsenal won the battle but Bayern ultimately won the war.
Arsene Wenger was proud of his team for their inspired performance against Bayern, but a lot of work has to be done to secure a Champions League spot come May.
Despite the negative outcome at the end of the game, there are a few positives to note. Here’s my take.
Lukasz Fabianski's Claim for a First-Team Place
In the football world, the name "Lukasz Fabianski" isn't the type that gives opposition attackers chills down their spine. On the contrary, it's the kind of name that makes opposition attackers lick their lips with the prospect of banging a boatload of goals past him.
His past record speaks volumes—that inexplicable howler against Porto in February 2010, the comic moment against Wigan in April 2010 and many more shaky performances that earned him that unwanted nickname "Flappyhandski."
Prior to Wednesday's fixture against Bayern, Fabianski hadn't played a competitive game for an entire year, with his last start being that shameful FA Cup fifth-round defeat to Sunderland in that pitch good enough to rear cattle.
Despite his glaring lack of match fitness, Wenger chose to give the Pole a rare start—a move worth its weight in gold.
Fabianski was very assured in goal and parried when he was meant to as well as smothered the ball when he was meant to.
There were no scary moments from crosses, no communication errors between him and his back line and most importantly, no reasons to point any fingers at the manager for selecting him because he put up a very commanding performance.
Many Arsenal fans (me included) still rate Wojciech Szczesny highly, but in my honest opinion Fabianksi made one hell of a claim for Szczesny's jersey, and I certainly won't mind if he retains his place against Swansea this weekend.
The return of Kieran Gibbs to full fitness will see the young fullback battle hard with new boy Nacho Monreal for a first-team berth. Szczesny was in dire need of such competition and it's good to know that Fabianski has used this performance as a benchmark to challenge his compatriot.
If there's anyone who needed some competition, it's Szczesny.
Arsenal's Awesome Defending
This season, there have been some words to describe Arsenal's defense—horrible, shambolic, useless, atrocious, putrid...you name it. On Wednesday night, it was the exact opposite.
Arsene Wenger made one hell of a Bould move (pun intended) to keep his captain, Thomas Vermaelen, out of the side. With Bacary Sagna still out injured and Monreal cup-tied, the boss opted for Sagna's able deputy, Carl Jenkinson, on the right while Kieran Gibbs' return from injury proved timely indeed as he slotted into the left-back position with consummate ease.
Laurent Koscielny was Arsenal's best center-back by a far mile last season, but with Per Mertesacker clearly being a favorite with the boss Kos had to make do with a place on the dugout to accommodate the "captain."
When Thomas Vermaelen joined Arsenal in the 2008-09 campaign, he was a colossus at the back and endeared himself into the hearts of Arsenal fans with an aggressive style of defending no different from Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic.
After a truly remarkable campaign that saw him work his skins off both offensively and defensively, Vermaelen earned a place in the 2009 Team of the Year and was tipped for great things at the club.
His second campaign was plagued by injuries and he was sorely missed. Since his return from his long-term Achilles tendon injury, his form has dwindled badly. When he was appointed as club captain following the departure of RVP, his form went downhill and it seems as if he's "burdened" by the extra responsibility.
Koscielny came into the picture in 2011, but after some initial rash displays the Frenchman grew with confidence and an extended run of games saw Kos mature really as a player.
Alongside the calm, composed and coordinated Big Friendly Giant, Koscielny put up a Man of the Match performance and capped it up with a goal that made his team a goal shy of making history.
On the back of Koscielny's performance in the Allianz Arena, I and many Arsenal fans out there will be livid if the Verm retains his place against Swansea by the mere fact that he's the captain. His performance in the North London Derby was very poor, and like Szczesny, he could do with some time on the bench to reflect on his form.
The fullbacks, Gibbs and Jenkinson, were awesome as well and it was really amazing to see how they dealt with the threats of world-class players like Arjen Robben and Thomas Mueller. Both players also contributed in attack while maintaining their defensive shapes.
After a collective defensive performance, Gibbs spoke about how the team proved that they have character (via Chris Harris of arsenal.com), while Jenkinson proved his worth yet again to the club with this brilliant post-match interview with Sky Sports.
While the defense did their bit to keep a massive clean sheet against Bayern, kudos must also go to Arsenal's midfield and forward line for playing their parts in the success story.
Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott were drafted as the wingers but there were times when they became emergency fullbacks to quell the threat the Bayern attack posed from the flanks.
Olivier Giroud was a thorn in the flesh of the Bayern defensive line as he closed them down superbly, forcing Daniel van Buyten and Dante to make unplanned clearances rather than a pass to a teammate close by.
Tomas Rosicky should also be commended for that tactical foul he committed against Robben that ensured that he took one for the team. For a player of his immense talent, it's really sad to know that he hardly commands a first-team berth.
Arsenal's impressive defending forced the likes of Kroos, Robben and Mueller to fire shots from distance, and when the shots came from close range, there was a certain Lukasz Fabianski stepping up to the challenge with a plethora of saves.
Overall, it was a 5-star performance from Arsenal in terms of defending. If they defended like this all season long, we wouldn't be struggling to get a Champions League spot at this point in time.
Clinical Efficiency in Attack?
Arsenal is a team that has made profligacy its watchword in recent times.
Funnily enough, there are even times when Arsenal hardly gets a sniff at goal as well—the away fixtures against Norwich, Manchester United and Chelsea as well as the home fixtures against Swansea (league) and Schalke are testaments to support these claims.
But with only four attempts on goal against Bayern, the Gunners scored two. Had Gervinho connected well with the ball after receiving Santi Cazorla's inch-perfect pass, the Gunners might have been in the draws for the quarterfinals.
Prior to his early goal against Bayern, Olivier Giroud was going through a run of six games without a goal, as his last strike was that vital header against Liverpool that gave Arsenal a glimmer of hope before Theo Walcott's drive leveled the contest.
Like Giroud, Walcott's last goal came six games ago, and since then Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla have been scoring the goals before Per Mertesacker did the double over Tottenham in the North London Derby.
In this "drought," Giroud and Walcott have probed opposition defenses to no avail, and it was only befitting that both players combined superbly to score that vital early goal Arsenal craved. Some say that Walcott miscued his shot while others say that it was a perfectly-drilled cross into Bayern's danger area, but one thing was more certain than death, taxes and England losing on penalties—Giroud firing home from close range.
Late on, Koscielny rose the highest to nod the ball home and it took one hell of a scramble to retrieve the ball from Manuel Neuer before taking it to the center circle.
The great Bayern Munich, heralded as a quality side that was no match for Arsenal, were so humbled at home that they had to resort to the shameful tactic of time-wasting while waiting for the ref to spare their blushes with the sound of his whistle.
If only Mikel Arteta had crossed a better ball into Bayern's danger area late on, Arsenal might have had three goals in five attempts.
Pride Restored and Another Chance to Set Things Right
A morale-boosting victory over a European juggernaut like Bayern Munich would be the push the Gunners need to make a final surge for that coveted Champions League spot.
After the sheer disappointments of humiliating losses to AC Milan and Sunderland, it took a resounding 5-2 victory over Tottenham last season for Arsene Wenger's men to hit the ground running.
This was followed by a Robin van Persie-inspired victory over Liverpool, a nerve-wracking 3-0 win over AC Milan, a late victory over Newcastle, a solitary win over Everton and a confident performance against Aston Villa before that blip against Queens Park Rangers.
Despite a shaky end to the campaign, that seven-game winning run saw the Gunners leapfrog Tottenham to third place, and they retained that position on the last day, celebrating St. Tottentingham's Day in the process.
This season, the Gunners are in a similar position and they'll have 10 cup finals to play, starting with a trip to Capital One Cup champions, Swansea. While the Gunners will have to rely on Tottenham and Chelsea to drop points, they'll have to do their part by winning all their remaining fixtures.
According to the Gunners' fixture list, they are set to lock horns against Swansea, Reading, West Brom, Norwich, Fulham, Manchester United, Queens Park Rangers, Wigan, Newcastle and the game in hand against Everton.
With the exception of Manchester United, these games are winnable on paper.
There are many more positives taken from this game. Feel free to share yours with your comments.