Frustrating For Arsenal, But By No Means Terminal

Fighting on two other fronts means that this was no repeat of last year's defeat to Bayern for Arsenal, whilst Manuel Pellegrini's complaints should fall on deaf ears...

Last Updated: 21/02/14 at 11:31 Post Comment

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Winners

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
The striker Arsenal and Chelsea would love to boast in title challenges made all the more difficult by the absence of a prolific No.9. Ibrahimovic now leads the top scorers' chart with ten strikes, but the statistics fail to tell the real story of the remarkable goals he has scored in this Champions League campaign. With Zlatan in this sort of form, PSG must feel confident that they can go at least a step further than last year's quarter-final exit.


Diego Costa
The striker Arsenal and Chelsea could possibly acquire, if reports of a £32m release clause are to be believed. The man with a bull's neck headed a late winning goal against AC Milan to give Atletico Madrid a huge advantage in their last-16 tie and also provide a welcome boost following a difficult run of results.

After losing only once in their first 36 matches this season, Diego Simeone's side suffered three defeats (two to Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey) in four fixtures before the trip to the San Siro. But with Costa rediscovering his scoring touch in the last month (he failed to score in seven starts from the beginning of January) it appears that Atletico can put that blip behind them. The striker's record of one goal every 57 minutes in his first Champions League campaign is a brilliant achievement.


Barcelona
They must be so bored of Jose Mourinho. Despite the Chelsea manager claiming this is the worst Barcelona team for "many, many years" the La Liga champions (Mourinho's Real Madrid finished 15 points behind) were simply too good for Manchester City. They weren't at their brilliant best and yet they didn't need to be, which is a sign of the strength they still possess and the size of the task facing City in order to catch up.

However, there were glimpses of the frailties that saw Barcelona crash out to Chelsea two years ago and City may have profited through caution, rather than sticking to their principles. Barca looked shaky on set-pieces and they were rattled when their opponents counter-attacked with ten men in the final 20 minutes. As Gerardo Martino admitted after the game, there were moments when Barcelona lost control.

One thing that was particularly interesting about the game was the way Barca lured City on to them at the start of the second half and then attempted to break at speed. This tactic failed towards the end of the first period, owing to some badly over-hit passes to Alexis Sanchez, but paid off in the incident that led to Lionel Messi's penalty and Martin Demichelis' red card. It was as though Barca were laying a trap for City, which the hosts confidently bounded into while forgetting their duties in defence.


Bayern Munich
A team with no obvious flaws and that knows how to exploit weak links in their opponents. Bayern targeted Arsenal's left side and were rewarded twice from that area of the pitch to take a 2-0 lead back to Germany.

Hopefully the return leg will see both sides keep 11 men on the field for the duration, which should tell us a great deal more about Bayern's hopes of retaining their title under Pep Guardiola.


Toni Kroos
A performance that proved he could single-handedly transform Manchester United's midfield and with it, their chances of challenging for the title rather than floundering in the battle for fourth. Not only did Kroos score a stunning opening goal after threatening on several occasions, he also bossed the game for Bayern by creating the chance that led to Wojciech Szczesny's sending off and attempting a phenomenal 127 passes in Arsenal's half (with a match completion rate of 96.7%). In contrast, Jack Wilshere attempted the most passes for the Gunners, with 30.


Arjen Robben
A deciding factor in a team full of match-winners. While Robben's transformation into a more unselfish team player started long before Guardiola's arrival, it is interesting to compare the manager's use of the forward to how Mourinho alienated Juan Mata at Chelsea. If there was one player Guardiola might have sought to get rid of after joining Bayern, it would have been Robben. Instead, he has used the 30-year-old to his advantage.

It's safe to say that Robben is big-game player. He scored the winner in last year's Champions League final, twice in the Ligapokal defeat to Borussia Dortmund at the start of the season, once in the 3-0 win over Dortmund in the league, against Man City in Bayern's 3-1 win in October and was again a crucial factor in dismantling Arsenal on Wednesday. He's a player you hate to love.


Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Hugely important to Arsenal in the absence of Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey, and performing with great maturity in Arsene Wenger's hour of need. That the 20-year-old remained on the pitch as Santi Cazorla was sacrificed for Lukasz Fabianski underlines his influence at the moment.


Yaya Sanogo
A paradoxical selection whose involvement emphasised Wenger's unforgivable failure to act in January, but also the manager's ability to spot a young talent and nurture them until they are ready to make an impact on the biggest stage. For a player who was making only his second start, Sanogo was brilliant. Commanding in the air (he won more aerial duels than anyone else on the pitch), with good control, an eye for a pass and a strong work ethic.

The only thing that was missing was a goal, but perhaps Sanogo should be afforded the chance to continue that pursuit at Olivier Giroud's expense on Saturday.


David Silva
Along with Fernandinho, the playmaker didn't deserve to be on the losing side on Tuesday. Keeping him fit for the rest of the season is vital to City's hopes of winning a league and domestic cup treble.

Losers


Arsenal
In this moment last year, Arsenal were at rock bottom. They were completely outclassed in their defeat to Bayern Munich, had been knocked out of the FA Cup by Blackburn only a few days before and were four points from fourth in the Premier League. Two weeks later, a 2-1 defeat to Tottenham had Andre Villas-Boas speaking of a negative spiral at the Emirates. It was embarrassing.

But this is a different moment. Arsenal's Champions League hopes effectively ended with Wednesday's defeat, but there are still two trophies left to fight for with less than three months of the season remaining. The loss to Bayern was hugely frustrating - "everything went against us," said Arsene Wenger - but there were positives to take at a crucial stage of the campaign. When the game was still a contest - 11 v 11 - I only saw signs of revival, both from this stage last season and in respect of the Gunners' Premier League title challenge.

The biggest problem for Arsenal recently has been starting matches slowly. On Wednesday, a frantic opening period had Bayern rattled. The biggest problem in the biggest matches has been sterile domination. On Wednesday, Arsenal moved the ball quickly and with purpose. The optimism may have been short-lived, but had Mesut Ozil converted from the spot and Szczesny not been dismissed, it would not have been unreasonable to expect an entirely different result.

As it stands, Arsenal will travel to Munich in two weeks knowing that Bayern will guard against last year's complacency. A repeat of Wednesday's bright start may renew faint hopes, but the Gunners must put the second leg to the back of their minds to focus on forthcoming Premier League fixtures against Sunderland and Stoke, as well as Everton in the FA Cup.

As I wrote here, there were glimpses on Wednesday - and in the FA Cup victory over Liverpool - that Arsenal can return to the quick, counter-attacking displays that made them so ruthless and so enjoyable to watch in the first few months of the season. And this was achieved without Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey - two players whose roles in quick transitions are so crucial to the team.

If Wenger can turn those glimpses to something more, we can fully expect Arsenal to enjoy a strong end to the season.


Mesut Ozil
Adam Bate suggested that fatigue could be the reason for Ozil's declining influence here while as I wrote in our preview of Arsenal's clash with Bayern, the playmaker's impact has also been stifled by a lack of options elsewhere on the pitch. Simply put, with Walcott and Ramsey in the team, Ozil is a better player.

The main worry is the potential impact of his saved penalty, with Ozil denied by his former youth team goalkeeper Manuel Neuer (cracking barnet on the lanky kid in the back row). Long after his miss, Ozil was still looking to the heavens and his frustration seemed to knock his concentration. He repeatedly failed to pick up Bayern's runners in the second half and was given a stern word by Mathieu Flamini when Robben evaded him for the umpteenth time down the right.

Perhaps Saturday's match at home to Sunderland is the perfect opportunity to give Ozil a rest.


Manchester City
A painful defeat after going toe-to-toe with Barcelona at the end of the first half and the start of the second but, as Sarah Winterburn said, City will be back here again and again and again.


Manuel Pellegrini
I pondered why Manuel Pellegrini reacted so uncharacteristically here, and it was foolish for the manager to earn himself a certain suspension and fine. It's also difficult to shake the idea that there is something rather small-time about such vociferous refereeing complaints when you have been beaten by a superior opponent. Suck it up, City, and prove that you really can match Barcelona when you meet at the Nou Camp in a fortnight.


Those Complaining About Double Punishment
...Need only read this excellent summation of the issues by Philip Cornwall.

We've been through this before, let's not keep returning to a trivial debate.


Bayer Leverkusen
As one wag said on Twitter, Bayer 04 by name, Bayer 04 by nature.

Matthew Stanger - follow him on Twitter here

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