Bayern Munich cruises past Arsenal
Arsenal face an immense challenge if they are to qualify from the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League after a 3-1 first leg defeat by Bayern Munich at Emirates Stadium, virtually booking the German side a place in the quarterfinals.
Gunners boss Arsene Wenger had hit out on Monday at critics of him and his side following their FA Cup exit at home to Blackburn, but there was to be no redemption as the Germans were superior in every department.
An early strike from midfielder Toni Kroos handed the Bundesliga leaders a crucial away goal, which was doubled when Thomas Muller stabbed home from close range.
Arsenal, with England forward Theo Walcott initially deployed as central striker, rallied briefly in the second half after they reduced the arrears with a header from Lukas Podolski against his former club.
However, after substitute Olivier Giroud fired a great chance straight at Bayern keeper Manuel Neuer from point-blank range, the Germans cut through the home side again on 77 minutes as Mario Mandzukic scrambled in a third to effectively end the contest, and almost certainly Arsenal's last faint hope of ending an eight-season trophy drought.
Wenger must now lift his beleaguered players for the Barclays Premier League run-in, where they face crucial games against Tottenham and Everton in their bid to salvage something from the campaign with a top-four finish to again play among Europe's elite clubs next season.
Walcott's deployment as a central striker looked a sound tactical switch by Wenger as the England forward quickly got behind the Bayern defense, with Santi Cazorla also making good headway down the right.
However, the high-octane atmosphere from the home support fell flat as Bayern - some 15 points clear at the top of the Bundesliga - grabbed a crucial away goal on seven minutes. Muller's cross from the right was not dealt with and Kroos crashed the ball off the turf and past Wojciech Szczesny from 18 yards.
Arsenal were shellshocked, but needed a response if they were to stand any chance of getting back into the tie. Bayern, though, continued to spray the ball across midfield, this time Franck Ribery picking out captain Philip Lahm on the overlap down the right, his cross put behind.
From the resulting corner, it was 2-0 and looked game over after just 21 minutes. Daniel van Buyten's header at the near post was parried by Szczesny, and Muller stabbed the ball straight back in back into the net from close range.
Arsenal were in danger of being overrun, with few cool heads as first Bacary Sagna and then Mikel Arteta were shown yellow cards for clumsy challenges. There was finally some cause for concern in the Bayern penalty area when a deep free-kick was floated in from the right and Per Mertesacker's follow-up shot was blocked.
Lahm sent another teasing cross in from the right just before half-time which in-form Croatia striker Mandzukic planted wide with a free header from 12 yards. Having left the field to a cacophony of boos from their own beleaguered fans, Arsenal needed to regroup at the break.
The Gunners suddenly sparked into life on 55 minutes when Podolski, who had a disappointing three-season spell at Bayern, headed in Jack Wilshere's right-wing corner at the far post after Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer - who had conceded just once in eight matches - decided to stay on his line.
Bayern felt aggrieved at the award of the corner in the first place, as the ball looked to have deflected behind off the Arsenal striker. The Germans, though, were soon back on the offensive as Kroos' angled, 20-yard drive was tipped over by Szczesny.
Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes made a change on 62 minutes as Dutch winger Arjen Robben replaced Ribery.
With 20 minutes left, Wenger produced a double switch as Olivier Giroud replaced Podolski and Czech midfielder Tomas Rosicky came on for Aaron Ramsey. The France striker's first touch was to turn Walcott's superb right-wing cross goalwards, but unfortunately it was straight at Neuer.
It proved a crucial miss as Bayern scrambled in a tie-clinching third goal on 77 minutes. Robben sidestepped Vermaelen before releasing Lahm on the overlap down the right. His cross flew through the six-yard box, where it Mandzukic got ahead of Sagna, the ball looping up off the Bayern striker's shin, over the goalkeeper and into the net.
Some Arsenal fans had seen enough, and headed for the exit, unsure of when they might see Champions League football here again. Szczesny did well to recover and push away a deflected shot from Luiz Gustavo, but the damage had already been done.
Gunners boss Arsene Wenger had hit out at critics of him and his side on Monday following their FA Cup exit at home to Blackburn, but there was to be no redemption as the Germans were superior in every department.
Jack Wilshere refused to lay blame on the Frenchman, however, adding: "I don't think it's anything to do with the manager.
"He puts us on the pitch, it's down to us to perform and get the best out of us every week and a manager can put us on the pitch and motivate us but we have to do it when we're on the pitch and at the moment we're starting badly and getting punished for it.
"I think the players will take responsibility, we're man enough to take it. The boss has been here for 16 years and he's been doing a great job so you can't question him."
Winger Arjen Robben, who provided the cross for Mandzukic to scuff home Bayern's third, was thrilled with his side's strong start. The former Chelsea wideman knew Arsenal would provide a stern challenge and believed making a positive opening would subdue a partisan Emirates Stadium crowd.
"We expected a very big start from Arsenal here at home with the fans behind them," 29-year-old said. I know from my time in England and we warned all of the players we have to be there from the first minute because there will be a storm going here at the Emirates Stadium.
"I think we did very well and of course if you score two goals you're in a great position."
The Associated Press was used in this report.