Bayern Munich: How Do Arsenal Stop The European Champions?
Think of one question you’ve heard repetitively since around this time last year.
Here’s one - how do you stop Bayern Munich?
Many teams have tried, but only three have succeeded since February last year. Manchester City, and tonight’s opponents Arsenal, are two of them. Yes, both of those losses came at the Allianz Arena, where one could say Bayern had taken their foot of the gas given the circumstance of each game - but even so, they lost.
Nevertheless, that means that in all competitions over last 12 months, where Bayern have played 60 competitive matches, they’ve lost just three - the third vs Borussia Dortmund in the German Super Cup - and drawn on only three occasions, meaning they’ve won a staggering 54 times.
So, given all this, how will they fare tonight against an Arsenal side who are fighting to get their season back on track after a 5-1 dismantling at the hands of Liverpool just 11 days ago?
Of course, these two sides met at exactly the same time last season, to the day - a fixture in which Jupp Heynckes' side ripped their hosts apart, winning 3-1 - and, despite suffering one of their three defeats in the return leg, progressed with relative ease.
Yet, despite little difference between the two starting XIs tonight and this time last year, a lot has changed for both sides.
Arsenal, as Arsène Wenger admitted, were fragile last year, playing Bayern just days after a humiliating FA cup exit at the hands of Blackburn.
"We're in a much better mental shape than a year ago. We had just lost to Blackburn, but this time we won [against Liverpool on Sunday]. We were too nervous and maybe wanted to equalise too much and conceded on the counter-attack.”
As Wenger mentions, Arsenal’s confidence can be high after their win against Liverpool, and their lofty position of second in the league, compared to last season when they were sixth, and there were serious doubts as to whether they would make this stage of the Champions League at all.
However, the Bayern side they will be facing, despite continuing to win in the same convincing manner under Guardiola every week, is a completely different animal.
Their new coach has instilled his Barcelona beliefs into his side with astonishing speed, and yet many still argue about his ability as a coach, due to never managing a side that isn’t the best in Europe. Ah, the naïvety.
His principles remain the same. As we know, possession is the key, but as we saw at Barca, possession in the final third, not this poor-man’s possession on the half way line.
For the half way line is where Manuel Neuer spends most of his time these days, so much so that they've started calling him Manuel ‘Trequartista’ Neuer.
They haven’t really, but it'd be bloody cool if they did.
Anyway, despite the possession, Guardiola has kept the Bavarians' firepower at its most ruthless, as Heynckes did last year.
He’s retained the power in midfield and defence that so scared opposition sides last season, even adding extra guile in attack with Mario Götze. He’s brought Rafinha out of the shadows and turned him into the right-back he once promised to be, and, in the meantime, converted Philip Lahm into an even more complete footballer by deploying him as a defensive midfielder in Bastian Schweinsteiger’s absence.
That's the Bastian Schweinsteiger who, rather ominously, is now back to full fitness having played very little this season.
So essentially what we’re trying to say is Arsenal will do very, very well to send the defending champions of Europe, heck, the world, out of the competition - but as we all know, and sorry for the cliché, anything can happen over two legs. Stranger things have happened in football. It could go either wa.... I’ll stop.
But one thing's for sure, Bayern know they’ll face a tougher challenge than the one Arsenal posed last season.
Philip Lahm is full of praise for the side full of his German compatriots. "They're fighting for the championship, that's not a coincidence: I believe they have developed as a team. They've become much stronger, the squad is more balanced. And they still play the way Arsenal always play. They want to have the ball, they like playing it short, and they have outstanding individuals."
And boss Pep Guardiola, whose Barcelona side were unexpectedly beaten 2-1 by Arsenal in 2011, is full of respect for his fellow coach and opponents tonight.
“His (Arsène Wenger’s) teams have his quality and I have to admire the quality of my opponents. We are going to play one team that has all the season been up (leading the league). The last eight, nine or 10 years they have been in the Champions League and they are a special team with Cazorla, Özil, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey."
"They always have good midfield players, with combinations. You have to be good in both sides in our defensive movements and try to understand their game."
I’ll challenge you to find a game with more passes in it this week, but it does mean we should be in for one hell of a game, with fast-flowing football from both sides. The key for Arsenal? Stay in the tie.
Follow George on Twitter at @GeorgeStoneman