If a team are left relying on a basic error from the world’s best goalkeeper to hang on to hopes of progression in the Champions League, even their staunchest supporter would concede they are on shaky ground. And yet, that is exactly the sort of handout Arsenal sprang to take advantage of to beat a Bayern Munich team who had, before today, won 12 on the bounce, scoring 40 and conceding just five along the way.
Defeat, or in truth, even a draw, would have seen Arsenal all but resigned to playing in the Europa League this season – if that. With an away trip to Allianz Arena and commitments against Olympiakos and Dynamo Zagreb – both teams that have already beaten Arsenal in the group – the only remaining fixtures, an unlikely victory against Bayern Munich at home would just about keep them in the hunt.
The game went as many might have expected it to, Pep Guardiola’s side dominating possession in search of the killer move that would leave their opponents teetering on the precipice. Manuel Neuer made his customary weekly save that is set to become a ‘Save of the Season’ contender from Theo Walcott, and one felt if Arsenal were to get any joy out of tonight, chances like that one needed to be gobbled up.
This, however, was a save you felt put all others, even those produced by this very keeper, this German freak of nature, to shame. Nacho Monreal provided a perfect cross from the left flank, almost planting it on the head of Theo Walcott, six yards from goal.
One might say the Arsenal speedster could have done better; it certainly wasn’t headed for the corner of the goal, but it wasn’t all that far away either. Yet Neuer dragged himself to his left – his weaker side, mind you – got his left paw on to the ball, and seemingly in defiance of the laws of physics, thrust it away from his goal, and towards safety.
It doesn’t take much to get social media abuzz these days, but even fellow goalkeepers like Pepe Reina and Kasper Schmeichel could not help but express their awe online.
It made the contrast to the error leading to Arsenal’s first goal especially jarring. A routine free kick floated down the middle by Santi Cazorla, one you would put your money on Germany’s No.1 catching in his sleep, appeared to fluster Neuer, who flapped inelegantly at the ball, missing it completely. It hit an almost disbelieving Olivier Giroud in the face, before landing on his forearm, and trickling into the net.
There was no clever Hand of God deception, just a serendipitous deflection. The crowd erupted, and neither the referee nor his assistants thought it wise to cut short the manic celebrations of nearly 60,000 South Londoners. The goal stood, and so, rather unsteadily yet doggedly, did Arsenal.
The stakes were high for Arsene Wenger on a personal level, too. Fans of the Gunners have been frustrated by, among other things, their side’s failure to progress past the first knockout round of the Champions League for the last five years, but never under the Frenchman’s stewardship has the club failed to get to the knockout stages of Europe’s biggest competition. It is a staggering run that stretches to 1996, and one suspects there can’t have been too many seasons that have threatened that record quite as much as the present one.
Munich expectedly laid siege to Petr Cech’s goal after that, but the former Chelsea man is a more assuring presence between the sticks than any Gunners keeper since David Seaman, and Alcantra, Vidal and Lewandowski, he of five goals in nine minutes, were all denied by the veteran keeper. The defence turned in a shift that should see them sleep soundly tonight, Hector Bellerin at the end even setting up Mesut Ozil for a stoppage time goal that capped off one of the most glorious nights in the young history of the Emirates stadium.
Once the adrenaline dies down, Arsene Wenger will realise the immensity of the job still left to do if Arsenal are to continue plying their trade amongst Europe’s elite come the start of 2016. They are joint bottom with three points, but that, as the battle-hardened Frenchman will appreciate, is three more than most gave them a hope in hell of securing just this morning
So who’s next, then? The same opposition, actually. On their patch this time, baying for vengeance. Formez vos bataillons, Arsene.