Having pretty much declared the Premier League title race over on these very pages last week, it came as a bit of a surprise that Chelsea were held to a draw at Turf Moor, not in any derogatory sense towards Burnley, Sean Dyche’s men boast a highly impressive home record, but simply because, for the most part, Chelsea’s march to the championship has seemed relentless in recent weeks. With all but Tottenham, who were dismantled by a Liverpool side that clearly find it easier to play against teams that will take them on and allow them space to attack, of the chasing pack winning their games the gap narrowed slightly to an overall lead of 8 points over Manchester City. With Antonio Conte’s men hosting City at the beginning of April ten days before they visit Old Trafford to face their former manager, maybe there is the faintest hint of a title race to come.
The return of the Champions League saw one of the biggest shocks in the modern incarnation of the competition, when Barcelona were battered in Paris. The result was not a surprise based on the relatively quality of the two teams, but because this sort of thing just doesn’t usually happen to them, only once before have the best team of the last decade been humbled like this, by Bayern Munich in 2013. The Catalans were given a lesson in football similar to those they have dished out to others on countless occasions and simply had no response to the aggressive high pressing and slick flowing football of the nouveau riche Parisian club. Ever since the takeover by the Qatar Sports Investments, PSG have aspired to a place among the European elite, the suggestion on Tuesday evening was that in the tactically astute Unai Emery they may have found the man to take them there. Barca will look to respond in the second leg back at their cherished Camp Nou, but a miracle such as the one required to turn this tie around is surely beyond even them.
So to Arsenal and what feels like a watershed moment in the club’s history; getting turned over in Munich wasn’t the hardest part of it, most logical Gooners feared that we hadn’t progressed or developed sufficiently to get any closer to the really big guns of European football; and if we are honest, I think we all knew the moment we were drawn against Bayern for the third time in five seasons that this was going to be the end of the road for our Champions League delusions for another year.
In the aftermath of the match a proportion of the analysis pointed to how good Die Roten were, and rightly so, rumours of their demise seemingly ridiculously premature; Ancelotti’s men were deadly going forward and would have been a significant challenge for any side in Europe. The worst part as an Arsenal supporter was that it was all so predictable, time and again when the chips are down, when it really matters, the Gunners are found lacking both tactically and from a mentality point of view. From the outset of the match Owen Hargreaves, who knows a thing or two about football and Bayern Munich, commentating on BT Sport in the UK, was imploring Arsenal to press his former club high up the pitch and to put pressure on their backline to try and force errors in a position where they could capitalise; yet Sanchez apart, the Gunners didn’t seem interested, preferring to sit off and allow Bayern space that they gleefully accepted.
Despite being completely overrun for 30 minutes and conceding from a brilliant, although highly predictable strike from Arjen Robben, Arsenal somehow found themselves not just back in the game but with the initiative in the tie when Alexis finally beat Neuer at the third time of asking after his initial spot kick was saved. They could have unbelievably put themselves in an even stronger position had Granit Xhaka’s drive been anywhere but straight down the middle or Özil’s shot been backed by greater conviction.
Away from home with an away goal going into the second half, resilience, stubbornness and an unbreakable will were what was needed, instead what we got, as has happened so often before, was an apologetic surrender; rather than stand up and be counted and take the fight to Bayern, almost to a man they cowered in the face of the waves of attack and within a period of ten minutes, immediately after losing the one defender who shows an ounce of the grit of his feted predecessors in the Arsenal backline, the game and the tie were over thanks to a header from Lewandowski and two strikes from the highly impressive Thiago.
After the game Arsène Wenger looked like a broken man, a man who has realised that he has taken the team and the club as far as he can; a realisation shared by just about everyone that has expressed an opinion on it in the days that have followed, even those who have previously been defiantly loyal; Ian Wight described the performance in Germany as ‘a f*****g shambles’; while Martin Keown suggested that ‘It’s almost embarrassing. Outclassed, outplayed,’ and suggested that ‘This is a massive low point for him (Wenger) and will only bring forward the change that looks ever more likely.’
It really does feel like we have reached the nadir of the Frenchman’s frankly extraordinary reign as manager of the club, for all he has given us Gooners and to the English game in general, he deserves nothing less than for the end to be dignified, a celebration of his achievements and legacy rather than tainted by petty jibes and insults from a short-term view, as is so often the way in the modern social media-driven world. To paraphrase an infamous banner that has been displayed amongst the Arsenal support in recent seasons: Arsène, we can’t thank you enough for the incredible memories but it feels like it is finally time to say goodbye.