James Lawton: Arsene Wenger must face up to his most formidable task following Arsenal's defeat to Bayern Munich
The worst fears for Arsenal's slender hold on their old status were on the point of coming to a terrible fruition
In the end Arsenal gave everything they had. They scored a goal, which is something to say when it is Bayern Munich providing the opposition these days, but the truth, the dry-mouthed truth, was that it was never going to be enough.
Jack Wilshere, the young player who has come to represent so many of the team’s best and most maturely developed competitive instincts, made a gallant speech on behalf of his desperately beleaguered coach. He said it was for the players to take responsibility. He said that Arsène Wenger deserved better after 16 brilliant years.
The trouble is that for seven of those years the pattern has been going in the wrong direction – and it is one which simply would not be sustained or allowed at any of Arsenal’s leading rivals.
Maybe that was on Wenger’s mind when he raced away from the action without any of the usual rituals. He went into the night not only beaten but, surely, with a sense that his task has never been so formidable or discouraging.
The game had hardly begun but already it seemed like the end of something. There have been many blows, from some unlikely quarters, landed on the idea that Wenger might again make a team with some of the wit and the authority of his great ones but this from Bayern suggested it might well carry a new and maybe terminal level of brutality.
Two goals up in 21 minutes, Bayern were everything they were said to be as they await the arrival, from a position of near ludicrous strength, the world’s most celebrated coach, Pep Guardiola.
Arsenal’s leading shareholder Stan Kroenke had flown in from America on what suddenly seemed less a sombre mission of appraisal than a visit to a disaster area. How could anyone at the Emirates maintain under the weight of this onslaught that Arsenal, despite their high ranking among the world’s most valuable football clubs, still had anything like serious contact with the highest levels of the European game?
Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller scored goals that seemed not so much devastating strikes as formal possession of a God-given advantage. That the second of them was largely created by Daniel van Buyten, the replacement for superior defenders who was widely rated the nearest thing to a Bayern weak link, could only increase the latest look of devastation on the face of Wenger. Van Buyten had a free run at a corner kick and Müller formally smashed the ball into the roof of the net.
All the worst fears for Arsenal’s slender hold on their old status a as a front-rank force in the game were on the point of coming to a terrible fruition.
Or so it seemed when Jupp Heynckes, the veteran who wanted one more year with this team before Guardiola cherry-picked the best of his options, spent half- time happily underlining the extent of his team’s superiority. For Wenger the task must have been one of the most folorn of a brilliant career which has become increasingly not so much an expression of the ability which made one of football’s great coaches but an ever spiralling ordeal.
Yet Wenger said what he had to say. He said that quite a degree of pride was still involved in situation which had the potential to become a journey to one of the worst places of his career.
It worked – at least to a point. If Arsenal could not build significantly, at least in terms of the outcome of this tie which so many said had offered them hardly the scrapings of hope, on Lukas Podolski’s second-half goal, they could least show a little fight – a little resistance to the idea that they had become utterly inconsequential in the outcome of the most serious events home and abroad.
They did this well, enough, and if substitute Oliver Giroud had angled his shot a little more sharply when facing only Bayern’s largely unemployed goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who knows, we might have had a little more evidence that Arsenal were not prepared to serve as punch-bags for the masters of the Bundesliga?
But then if there was a little restitution of self-respect, unfortunately there was far from enough evidence that Arsenal indeed had the means to take something, even the merest hint of light, into the second leg in Munich. That possibility was put to the sword when Bayern’s marvellously fecund striker Mario Mandzukic ran beautifully to deliver a third goal.
On the touch-line, Wenger sagged again. He had talked of the mental strength of his team and their deep-seated ability before this trial and no doubt he will walk again to create something from the debris of defeat.
It is a forlorn task for a great football man for whom the weight of pressure had reached still another level.
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