Holders Bayern Munich are through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League after drawing 1-1 with Arsenal on Tuesday.
It looked like being a nigh-on impossible job for the Gunners and so it proved; Although the Gunners drew 1-1 at the Allianz Arena, they went behind on the night before scrambling back on terms and never truly looked like mounting a remarkable comeback to progress.
Nevertheless, Arsene Wenger might be forgiven for wondering what might have been—his side going toe-to-toe with their illustrious opponents for much of the tie, with the first-leg incident that saw goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny both concede a penalty and get sent off proving decisive in the contest.
That is not to say Pep Guardiola’s side would not have won anyway; The ease with which his side picked apart Arsenal’s defence for Bastian Schweinsteiger’s 55th minute strike was evidence enough of their quality, even against 11 men.
Yet Lukas Podolski’s controversial finish just moments later would have set up an altogether more dramatic final half-hour had matters at the Emirates finished 0-0 rather than 0-2—especially after Szczesny’s replacement, Lukasz Fabianski, saved an injury-time penalty from Thomas Mueller.
Wenger told reporters afterwards:
We had to defend a lot in the first half, but we knew that being in the game at half-time we had a good chance to win the game.
I believe that in the second half the opportunities were there, but overall over the two games I feel that what made the difference is the decision to send our goalkeeper off in the first game.
We played a 1-1 tonight and that decision had a huge impact.
Guardiola, however, was not willing to get into that debate.
"We played with a lot of intelligence," he said. "We deserved to progress."
Prior to the match, Wenger had called for his side to show the attacking vigour and intent that they had demonstrated in the first leg prior to Szczesny’s dismissal. But for the most part, it was Bayern who once again dictated the tempo and flow of the contest.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was the one consistent threat for the visitors—drawing a booking for Dante in the opening 10 minutes and frequently running beyond his markers with the ball—but that did not materialise into any clear-cut chances, with Olivier Giroud’s header straight at Manuel Neuer about Arsenal’s best opening.
Guardiola had opted to leave Toni Kroos, the best player on the pitch in the first leg, on the bench for this match. But the decision did not unduly affect the hosts, who passed the ball around with customary precision. Although, they too struggled to create clear openings.
The deputising Fabianski was called into action on one or two occasions to save strikes from Mario Gotze and Mario Mandzukic, but in the main, it was late defensive interventions—notably from Laurent Koscielny and Mikel Arteta—that thwarted Bayern just as they were looking for that killer final ball.
The game went into the break goalless, and it was Arsenal who made the first change, as Mesut Ozil was withdrawn for Tomas Rosicky. The official line was that Ozil was suffering with a “tight hamstring,” and he had struggled to impress in the opening 45 minutes.
The change perhaps gave Arsenal a bit more bite in midfield, but it was Bayern who continued to dictate proceedings, and in the 55th minute, they got the all-important first goal.
It was Schweinsteiger who made the aggregate scoreline 3-0 as he finished off another team move of impressive quality, although Arsenal will perhaps kick themselves at the slight defensive lapse.
Out on the left, Franck Ribery drew Per Mertesacker out of position as he threatened to go around Bacary Sagna, and as Koscielny edged across in support of his central defensive partner, Schweinsteiger ghosted into the space before firing past Fabianski.
It felt like the goal that would seal the game, but a controversial decision just moments later would give Arsenal immediate hope.
Lukas Podolski appeared to push Philipp Lahm to the floor as the Bayern full-back attempted to clear just outside his own box. But the referee did not award the free-kick, and the ex-Bayern forward took full advantage—thumping a vicious strike between Neuer and his near post from an acute angle to level matters on the night and give his side the crucial boost of an away goal.
Still needing two goals in order to progress Arsenal’s renewed threat nevertheless seemed to concern Guardiola, who immediately replaced Mario Gotze with Kroos to reshuffle his midfield in a fashion more conducive to retaining (even more of the) possession.
It was not necessarily a defensive move, but it certainly worked as intended, as Bayern barely faced another scare of note over the remaining 25 minutes. They created plenty of there own, however, with only a combination of good fortune, decent saves from Fabianski and some wasteful shooting keeping Bayern from getting a fourth.
Wenger did not give up—bringing on Serge Gnabry for Mikel Arteta—but when he used his final substitution to bring Mathieu Flamini on for Oxlade-Chamberlain in the final 10 minutes, it became apparent that the Premier League side’s race was run.
In the end, the last moment of drama was almost meaningless. Mentally and physically drained after a tiring evening, a poor Koscielny challenge in the box once again brought down Robben, with substitute Mueller taking the spot-kick.
Fabianski saved the strike with his legs and then punched away the ball as it rolled across his goal line—but it was a remarkable piece of goalkeeping that ultimately only ensured his side did not lose on the night.
"Bayern have weaknesses like any other team and when you score anyone can get nervous," Oxlade-Chamberlain said afterwards to ITV. "When we did that we thought we had a chance but we just couldn't do it.
"Maybe we lacked a bit of quality with the final ball. At the top level you need that. The boys put in a great shift but we can be proud of our efforts."
The Gunners did not disgrace themselves across the tie, ultimately only being undone by the red card to their goalkeeper in the first half of the first leg.
Bayern, however, always appeared to have the edge and will now surely be the team every other side wants to avoid in the last eight. With Guardiola’s men potentially having sewn up the Bundesliga title by the end of this month, they could soon be in a position to focus almost exclusively on retaining their European crown.
It is a scary thought.
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Arsenal have the small matter of a North London derby against Tottenham to look forward to this weekend. Bayern, meanwhile, host Bayer Leverkusen at the Allianz Arena as they continue their seemingly inexorable run towards the Bundesliga title.
The quarter-final draw is due to take place in Nyon on Friday, March 21.
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