The end, dear friends, is nigh. The wall is ready - we just need to know what to write. The fat lady is practising her ma-ma-ma’s and me-me-me’s. The band is tuning up so put a ribbon on it because it looks like Arsenal’s season is done.
Clichés and badly written mixed metaphors aside it really does look like, for the eighth season in a row, Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal will be going home without a nice shiny cup. When you consider the fall from grace of what was formerly London’s premier football club, even taking into account the arrival of the new money in Manchester and the capital, it really is quite staggering.
The club that battled Ferguson’s Red behemoth throughout the late nineties and first few years of this new millennium; the club that gave us Bergkamp, Overmars, Vieira, Ljungberg, Pires, the burgeoning talents of a teenage Ashley Cole, Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie; the club that gave us The Invincibles, that gave us the imperious Theirry Henry. The club that won away San Siro and the Bernabèu among so many great European trips; the club that was so, so close to beating Ronaldinho’s Barcelona to win the 2006 Champions League final. It is that very same club that is now viewed with vague amusement by most, a toxic mixture of hope and despair by its own, and no doubt with some hilarity over on Bill Nicholson Way.
Arsenal fans should be worried. Or not. Perhaps they should just offer a sigh of resigned acceptance. 2012/13 was always going to end like this. It is a footballing habit as sure, regular and predictable as a John Terry scandal: Arsenal’s season ends in February. On a good year that will mean a jaunt to Wembley to be defeated in the League Cup final but this year we got that particular embarrassment out of the way nice and early so that we could concentrate on being embarrassed in finer, more up-market competitions but the result is just the same – no trophy.
Added to December’s acquiescence to Bradford City is last weekend’s failure to turn dominance into victory against a Blackburn side that, while in a half decent run of form aren’t exactly tearing up trees in The Championship. The problems are all too evident and repetitious to be taken seriously – sit deep and hit them on the break and more often than not this Arsenal side will allow you a goal or two. Blackburn won the game with a goal form their only chance – if you can put in a good shift defensively against the current incarnation of Arsenal then chances are you’re in with a shout of victory; you don’t even need to be that good going forward.
That, though, will not be a problem for The Gunners’ Champions League opponents this week. Bayern Munich are the most dominant side in Europe this year. They sit 15 points clear of a Borussia Dortmund side that have been universally acclaimed over the last two years. They’re 27 points and eight places above a Shalke side that put four past Arsenal in two matches during the group stages this year. They’ve just recorded their fifth straight win without conceding a goal and have only conceded seven goals all season in the league, only one of them away from home.
If you’re under the impression that this is a team that just chokes the life out of the game every week, nicks a goal and then tiptoes back to Munich you are very much mistaken. Bayern are a team that boast Frank Ribèry, Javi Martinez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Marko Mandzukic and Thomas Müller in their side with Arjen Robben and Mario Gomez – two players who would walk into just about every Premier League side, and definitely into this Arsenal Team – on the bench. They haven’t failed to hit the net in a single game this season and are averaging 2.6 goals per game. Bayern Munich are as destructive a team as you can find in European football.
These statistics are intimidating enough, but the real killer for Arsenal is the way in which Bayern go at teams. They are the ultimate counter-attacking side, able to soak up supreme pressure with losing concentration, without conceding a goal, and then hit you hard and fast on the counter attack with quick-thinking, quick-footed, deadly accurate players. Bayern Munich is the team that many expected Real Madrid to be. They are devastating.
Arsenal is still a very good side – any team that qualifies for the Champions League season after season as they do, any team that boast a creative triumvirate of Arteta, Wilshire and Santi Cazorla and a player as deadly as Theo Walcott is on his day ahead of the isn’t to be trifled with. However, you do have to fear for Arsenal against Munich. They just aren’t cut out for this type of opponent - they aren’t able to cope with teams that will frustrate and draw them in before hitting on the break. My expectation is that you’ll see Arsenal go at Bayern, maintaining possession and squeezing, squeezing in, looking, searching for an opening, for a moment to strike. You’ll see the midfield pack in towards the strikers, you’ll see the defence move up to the half-way line, you’ll see potential and perseverance followed by frustration and complacency. Then you’ll see Kroos… to Schweinsteiger… to Müller… he’s through on goal…
2012/13 was always going to end like this.
Arsenal will do well not to be embarrassed by this Bayern Munich side, such is the difference in class, consistency, concentration and confidence but that isn't to say that they aren’t capable of more than just keeping the score down. At time this teams clicks so well that it is just a pure joy to watch – if Arteta is on form, governing play from the back and cutting out counter-attacking threat, if Wilshire is at his tenacious, adventurous, inspiring best, if Cazorla has the time to prod and probe and produce like we know he can, if Walcott is in the kind of ravaging form he displayed against Newcastle earlier this year, and above all, if the defence actually turn up, they are capable of taking it to this Bayern team. They are capable of winning.
That might be blind loyalty from an ever-hopeful Arsenal sufferer but if football is about one thing and one thing only. Its blind loyalty. Besides, I’ve got £20 on Arsène Wenger’s red and white army to win this competition, I can’t back out now.