FOX Soccer Exclusive
Bayern Munich bullies Arsenal, again
As he did last year on this same exact day, Kroos broke the deadlock with a gorgeous first-time shot that curled in near post, past a helpless Lukasz Fabanski. Thomas Muller then sank the dagger late with a header right down the gut that gave the keeper no chance. The result now sets up a tense rematch in three weeks time, with Arsenal chasing two goals. In the rematch last year, Arsenal won out 2-0, only to go out on away goals after their 3-1 first leg collapse. Yet, after playing nearly an hour here with ten men in a rear-guard action, the Gunners will believe they indeed have a chance.
In truth, it was a bittersweet end to what had been a wild game for forty minutes: the opening half saw two blown penalty attempts and a red card, surrounded by some compelling football. But following the ejection of keeper Wojciech Szczesny, what had been a fast-paced and evenly-matched game became lopsided, with the reigning champs turning the screw.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger conceded as much, but blamed the referee for the change in the game's pace.
"In the first half, the game was top quality, in the second half, for neutral people it was boring, one-way traffic. The referee made the decision that killed the game ... I just feel frustrated," Wenger lamented.
Bayern manager Josep Guardiola also saw the tone of the match change on the play, noting, "After the red card for their goalkeeper it was another game."
With Kroos and Phillip Lahm pulling the strings, the Germans simply looked irresistible against the Londoners, which was not a reflection of Arsenal’s class. In fact, the Gunners put on one of their most complete games this season – but as Manchester City showed Tuesday night, it is difficult to beat the best without your full complement on the field.
Arsenal came roaring out of the gates, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain signaling his intent from the get-go, driving down the right flank with abandon and proving more than David Alaba and Dante could handle. But the first real chance fell to Kroos, whose speculative shot from range almost caught Szczesny out at the top-corner, forcing the Pole into a world-class stop.
Six minutes later, Arsenal’s counter-attack paid off, with Jerome Boateng caught on the turn by Mesut Ozil inside the Bayern area, and ref Nicola Rizzoli immediately pointed to the spot. Ozil, who looked far more energetic in this game than he has in the entire month prior, looked nervous -- and when he came to take the shot, he flubbed his lines. Tamely putting it down the middle, a surprised Manuel Neuer merely stuck up a big mitt and slapped the ball away.
"He missed the penalty with his style of play. I regret that we missed it. We needed it tonight," Wenger said.
That took some of the fire out of the Gunners, and Bayern started to make their presence felt with Lahm and Mario Gotze starting to work their guile. But Arsenal continued to look dangerous on the counter, and when surprise starter Yaya Sanogo put Oxlade-Chamberlain through alone on goal, the Emirates roared -- only to see Neuer again foil the move.
A turning point in the game came at the half-hour mark, when Kieran Gibbs was forced to be withdrawn after suffering what appeared to be a hamstring injury. Replaced by Nacho Monreal off no warm-up, the replacement defender was immediately targeted by Bayern as they worked the overload. That would pay dividends immediately as Arsenal started to get pulled out of position, with Laurent Koscielny having to scramble and cover for his hapless teammate, and it would lead to a sustained spell of Bayern pressure.
Then, disaster hit Arsenal: Kroos flipped a delicious ball over the back line that Arjen Robben took down with an outstretched leg. Though it looked as if the ball was gone, what was indisputable was that Sczesny crashed into his plant leg. Robben made a meal of it, but the ref had no option, and the keeper went off to an early bath.
"Szczesny touched the keeper and Robben made more of it -- which I told him -- and unfortunately it completely changed the game, it killed the game," Wenger said.
Gunners defender Per Mertesacker admitted, "I'm not sure it was a red card, but there was contact so it was definitely a penalty."
Bayern should have ended it right there, but Alaba stunned all onlookers when, after a lengthy delay to allow Fabianski to get stripped and on, he dinked his attempt from the spot off the left upright and out of play.
After the break, Bayern worked the overload on Monreal’s side to profit, with Lahm pushing up into the center of the field and Rafinha taking his place at right back. With Robben and Gotze circling, they finally prised Arsenal’s heart apart in the 54th minute, when Kroos and Lahm exchanged passes, forcing Koscielny to commit to cover. That allowed Kroos the space to shoot for the corner, and he did not miss.
Muller’s goal broke the tie open. Had Arsenal been able to hold on and see the tie out, the next game might have been far closer. But his pinpoint header off Lahm’s service after sub Claudio Pizarro opened up space and assured Bayern of a comfortable cushion heading back to the Allianz.
The agony for Wenger will be that his side played very well. He will be left, once again, to wonder what if.