After the upsets and shock value provided on Tuesday, Wednesday brought a more familiar pair of games in the Champions League. Although Bayern Munich and Real Madrid both had difficult spells, both ultimately won comfortably, with the German champion beating Arsenal 5-1 while the defending European champion beat Napoli 3-1.
Arjen Robben scored a typical left-footed goal to put Bayern ahead after 11 minutes, but Alexis Sanchez leveled before halftime following in–eventually–after his penalty had been saved. But after Laurent Koscielny had gone off with a hamstring injury early in the second half, Arsenal capitulated, a goal from Robert Lewandowski and two from Thiago Alcantara transforming the tie in the space of 15 minutes. Thomas Muller calmly finished a chance created by Thiago with two minutes left to finish off the rout.
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In Madrid, Lorenzo Insigne put Napoli ahead at the Bernabeu from long range after catching Keylor Navas off his line, but Karim Benzema leveled before second-half goals from Toni Kroos and Casemiro put Madrid in control heading into the second leg in Italy.
Here are three thoughts from an action-packed day in the Champions League:
A familiar story for Arsenal
In the end, it was a crushing victory for Bayern Munich, one that emphasized the gulf that exists between it and the very best sides. It’s true that the second-half collapse followed the departure of Koscielny with a hamstring injury, but no top side can deflate so obviously just because its captain has been forced off.
The rumbles of discontent that have been mounting around Arsene Wenger for a decade are growing ever louder. Again and again his side has flattered to deceive, showing enough form to raise hopes each year that it may be a title challenger, only to drop soft points and fail to perform in the biggest games. In Europe it has been a similar story, making it out of the group stage again and again–not since 2000-01 has Arsenal failed to reach the last 16–only to falter at the first major test. Wenger’s side has gone out of the Champions League at this stage in each of the last six seasons–twice against Bayern–usually with a face-saving, second-leg rally that hasn’t been quite enough.
Arsenal had an early warning, as nobody closed down Arturo Vidal, allowing him to unleash a shot from 25 yards that David Ospina saved well. But on 11 minutes, as the ball was worked back to Robben, three Arsenal players sat off him. Eventually Francis Coquelin moved to him, but by then it was too late and Robben drifted inside far too easily as Koscielny failed to cover. Everybody knows how adept Robben is at cutting on off the right flank and curling shots in at the far post, yet the attempt to stop him was diffident and too late.
Yet Arsenal did pull itself back into the game, leveling through Alexis and having the better of the end of the first half. As soon as Koscielny went off four minutes into the second half, though, it was over. Philipp Lahm crossed for Robert Lewandowski, who had missed three first half headers, and he nodded Bayern ahead. Thiago finished neatly after a Lewandowski back-heel and then added a fourth with a deflected drive.
Amid the five goals were even more close calls. Lewandowski had a shot deflected against the bar, Robben saw a shot deflected wide off the hand off Kieran Gibbs, while Ospina made a stunning save from Javi Martinez. And all that was before the midpoint of the second half, another dismal patch from Arsenal ending another Champions League campaign. Muller removed any silver of doubt with two minutes remaining, putting Arsenal in the position of needing a second-leg miracle at the Emirates.
It wasn’t just Wenger under pressure. There are doubts, too, about Carlo Ancelotti, which, given Bayern is seven points clear at the top of the Bundesliga, says much about the absurd imbalance within German football. His side lacks the intensity it demonstrated under his predecessor, Pep Guardiola, and although it rose to the occasion to thrash the pretenders of RB Leipzig 3-0 in the last game before the winter break, defeats in the Champions League group stage to Atletico Madrid and Rostov, sparked concerns about how possible it is to do that consistently.
His critics wouldn’t have been entirely satisfied here, no matter how convincing the second-half display was. For 27 minutes, Arsenal toiled. But then Alexis got a run at Bayern, which is clearly susceptible to pace on the counter, and won a free kick on the edge of the box. Manuel Neuer saved Mesut Ozil’s attempt, but looked awkward in doing so. Doubt, suddenly, was planted, and two minutes later Lewandowski clumsily kicked Koscielny to concede a penalty. Alexis's kick was poor and saved by Neuer. His follow-up was much worse but had the fortuitous effect of teeing up another attempt that he was able to hook into the corner. Having had no shots in the opening 25 minutes of the game, Arsenal had five on target before halftime.
Perhaps it was just a final flailing of a doomed Arsenal, but perhaps it was the sort of complacency for which Bayern has frequently been criticized this season, a trait better sides than Arsenal will punish.
Napoli too open in its approach vs. Real Madrid
Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri had vowed to take the game to Real Madrid. It was a risky policy and one that was not altogether successful, even if did Napoli did get an away goal in the eighth minute that could prove critical. Marek Hamsik penetrated the Madrid back line with a sumptuous pass into the path of Insigne, who hit his shot early and caught Navas flat-footed as the ball bounced past him and into the corner.
At that point, could Napoli have looked to kill the game? Perhaps, but it’s not the way it naturally plays. It kept attacking, and the result was an open game, perhaps too open. Madrid was level within 10 minutes, with Dani Carvajal crossing with the outside of his right foot for Benzema to head his fifth goal in his last four Champions League games. Four minutes into the second half, Kroos steered in a Cristiano Ronaldo cut-back and five minutes after that Casemiro lashed in a stunning volley, put Real Madrid back on course for a return to the quarterfinals.