In a season of brilliance from Bayern Munich and considerable anguish for Arsenal, Champions League success has taken on differing levels of importance as they prepare to meet Tuesday in the last 16.
The sight of Arsene Wenger turning angrily on reporters Monday gave an indication of the importance of the two-matches to his Arsenal side.
Europe is Arsenal’s last route to ending a trophy drought stretching back to 2005 after second-tier club Blackburn ended its FA Cup hopes on Saturday.
Questions on Monday about that humiliation were met with tetchy responses from Wenger, who then reacted with anger to a report claiming he was in talks about a new contract, just as calls from some fans for the manager’s exit gather pace.
”I deserve a bit more credit than wrong information that has only one intention – to harm,” Wenger said.
Turning to one reporter, Wenger asked: ”Why do you look at me?”
The Frenchman, who has been at Arsenal since 1996, then complained about the persistent questions about this season’s struggles and mounting criticism of his management.
”We live in a democracy of experts and opinions … there are a lot of experts who are not necessarily always right,” Wenger said.
What is indisputable is Arsenal’s Premier League position: fifth, 21 points behind leader Manchester United and four points behind the fourth spot to qualify for the Champions League for the 16th straight season.
Winning the competition could be Arsenal’s only way of remaining among Europe’s elite next season – like London rival Chelsea last year when the Blues beat Bayern in the final to qualify for this year’s competition.
”Arsenal belong among Europe’s best teams,” Bayern defender Daniel van Buyten said. ”They have huge potential going forward, very strong individuals and a very good team.”
But unlike the four-time European champions, Arsenal can’t afford to let-up domestically and shift focus to the Champions League.
Bayern has spent the past weeks bolstering its domestic dominance, moving 15 points clear in the Bundesliga while also remaining in contention for the German Cup.
”Our team is more homogenous this season than at any time since I joined Bayern,” said Van Buyten, who has been at the club since 2006. ”We already had some very good phases, for example a couple of years ago when we nearly got the treble, but now we’ve improved by a few more percentage points.”
No team has scored against Bayern in 2013, while the seven goals conceded and 57 scored in the Bundesliga are unparalleled at this stage in the season.
Winning the Champions League would be the perfect sendoff for coach Jupp Heynckes before Pep Guardiola takes charge in the offseason, especially given the frustration over last season’s loss in the final to Chelsea.
Arsenal’s players, though, are recalling how Chelsea unexpectedly produced London’s first European Cup by eliminating Barcelona and then beating Bayern.
”Chelsea weren’t having a good season and they got a bit lucky in some games, but showed great character,” Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere said. ”We need to do that now and come together as a team … we have beaten big European teams here before so we need to do that again.”
And Heynckes is not underestimating Arsenal despite the weekend setback.
”Arsenal found their rhythm again in the last weeks,” he said. ”They play very well going forward … I warn against underestimating this team. They’re back up and running again. That makes it very dangerous for us.”