When Bayern Munich and Arsenal drew each other in the UEFA Champions League group stage, many thought the two were going to breeze through their other opponents and then duke it out for the group victory. That narrative is pretty well crumpled up and in the bottom of the wastebasket.
Arsenal have done the opposite of their expectations, losing their first two group matches in humiliating fashion. The Gunners are now stuck in a ditch, and they are looking up at a very formidable club. They need Bayern to extend a hand over these next two fixtures, something the Roten will not do willingly.
Despite their different places in the Group F table, these next two legs of the group stage still have an intriguing narrative. Arsenal could play like they have nothing to lose, while Bayern will try to show why they are the team to beat in Europe this season. Tuesday's match in London will be a good opportunity for Arsenal to land their early blows, but if they cannot knock Bayern down, they are going to be in a tough fight.
The Match (9th Meeting)
Location: Emirates Stadium, London, England
Head: Cunyet Çakır
FC Bayern: 2 W, 0 D, 0 L – 3 YC
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Television and Streaming:
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FC Bayern: WWWWW
UEFA Champions League: 4 W, 2 D, 2 L
Largest Victory: 3-1 (February 22, 2005, Munich, Germany; February 19 2013, London, England)
Largest Defeat: 0-2 (March 13, 2013, Munich, Germany)
Bayern's dominance across all realms of the footballing landscape is daunting for any club to observe, especially since they have yet to drop a point so far. That said, the flaccid performance from the defending Bundesliga champions is not the best omen to bring into a Champions League match.
Bayern showed at the weekend how reliant they are on wing play, though Arturo Vidal, Thiago Alcantara, and Philipp Lahm did their best to replicate the service from previous matches. There should be no reason why Bayern would have to rely on those midfielders again, for Douglas Costa should return after his daycation on the bench. Transitioning from defending to attacking should be much more fluid with him back in the side.
Whether Douglas will be able to provide the same service is a different matter entirely. Most of the service that unbuckles Arsenal is from set pieces, and open play service is a little easier for them to handle. This may cap what Robert Lewandowski can do, and the prolific Polish striker may have to get more creative in the penalty area. Without another flanker on the right, Thomas Müller may not be able to draw the same attention he usually does in the 18-yard box, which could leave Lewandowski trapped in defensive congestion.
Vidal therefore becomes the trump card, and his presence in attack may be something the Gunners do not account for. With Xabi Alonso and Thiago Alcantara the two passing commanders, Vidal will have more free reign to roam. That may cause Arsenal to have more difficulty to contain him unless they commit more numbers in the defensive half of the field.
Pep Guardiola has gotten creative with his defense so far this season, but Arsenal's fluidity may call for more brute force at the back. However, Juan Bernat may get a surprise nod, even though his fitness and his form are not at the levels they need to be. Few players on Bayern can man-mark as well as him, and with two above-average to world class midfielders as opponents, the pesky Spaniard's skill set may fit what Guardiola wants to do. That said, Javi Martínez did not watch the Werder Bremen match only to be a passenger in one of Bayern's biggest matches of the season.
Bayern are clearly in their own echelon at the moment, and the Emirates is where they need to show it.
Projected Lineup (4-3-3):
Douglas Costa – Robert Lewandowski – Thomas Müller
Arturo Vidal – Xabi Alonso – Thiago Alcantara
David Alaba – Jérôme Boateng – Javi Martínez – Philipp Lahm
Bench: Sven Ulreich, Juan Bernat, Jan Kirchhoff, Rafinha, Joshua Kimmich, Gianluca Gaudino, Kingsley Coman
Out/Suspended: Holger Badstuber (ankle), Medhi Benatia (thigh), Mario Götze (groin), Franck Ribéry (ankle), Arjen Robben (groin), Sebastian Rode (thigh)
Though they have the talent and have the skill, one really cannot put a finger on this Arsenal team. They look like a club that should be winning silverware, yet they drop points to clubs they should be beating. Some speculate mental fragility is the culprit, though pointing out personality flaws outside of a team's dressing room is an absurd activity.
This is not an Arsenal a club like Bayern should be underestimating though, even with their current Champions League predicament. Without a lot of club turnover, one can clearly see how well they know each other, and that makes their interplay some of the best in the world. Mesut Özil stands in the center of their versatile attack, and he playing in the elite playmaking stratosphere at the moment.
Arsenal had no shortage of chances in the first two Champions League rounds, but their finishing really let them down. The Gunners often rely on Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to be better finishers than they are, and too often the fans behind the goal are at the end of their shooting efforts. Olivier Giroud – whose finishing is inexplicably underrated – is back from his one-match suspension though, which should facilitate things a bit. It also helps having an Alexis Sanchez on their team.
Their defense has skill too, but is often as vulnerable as an out-of-shell snail. Fascinating how the midfield and attack mesh together so well, and the defense can look like strangers playing with each other for the first time. That may be due to Arsene Wenger's insistence on competition rotation, giving Gabriel Paulista and David Ospina chances to play when they may not be the best solution. Rotations go out the window when big-name opponents come to town, but even an adversary like Bayern will not rip Wenger from his stubborn ways.
The pressure on Arsenal to perform in the Champions League is not a secret, and whether this club can show fortitude against big opponents in their own stomping ground is a question the Gunners still have not answered.
Projected Lineup (4-2-3-1):
Alexis Sanchez – Mesut Özil – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Mikel Arteta – Santi Cazorla
Kieran Gibbs – Laurent Koscielny – Per Mertersacker – Hector Bellerin
Bench: David Ospina, Nacho Monreal, Gabriel Paulista, Callum Chambers, Francis Coquelin, Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott
Out/Suspended: Tomáš Rosicky (knee), Danny Welbeck (knee), Jack Wilshire (calf)
Though the predictions are bound to go in Bayern's favor, this match is going to a white-knuckle one for sure. Arsenal's dynamism is something Bayern have not seen so far this season, which may help the Gunners to get some early momentum. Bayern will get into a lot of trouble if they cannot handle Arsenal's ability to break, but that may be a problem Guardiola can solve with his team sheet. More chances may come from midfield, but Lewandowski and Müller are still going to break free once or twice. It may be a photo finish, but Arsenal cannot let Bayern run away with this group.
Projected Score: Arsenal (2-2) Bayern Munich
The Other Action
Group F Opponents
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Olympiacos (Tuesday, 2:45 PM ET)
The Rest of the UEFA Champions League
BATE Borisov vs. Barcelona (Tuesday, 2:45 PM ET)
Dynamo Kyiv vs. Chelsea (Tuesday, 2:45 PM ET)
FC Porto vs. Maccabi Tel Aviv (Tuesday, 2:45 PM ET)
Zenit St. Petersburg vs. Olympique Lyonnais (Tuesday, 2:45 PM ET)
Valencia vs. KAA Gent (Tuesday, 2:45 PM ET)
Malmö FF vs. Shakhtar Donetsk (Wednesday, 2:45 PM ET)
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Real Madrid (Wednesday, 2:45 PM ET)
CSKA Moscow vs. Manchester United (Wednesday, 2:45 PM ET)
Atlético Madrid vs. Lokomotiv Astana (Wednesday, 2:45 PM ET)
Galatasaray vs. SL Benfica (Wednesday, 2:45 PM ET)
Manchester City vs. Sevilla (Wednesday, 2:45 PM ET)