It wasn’t the greatest goal Bayern have ever scored. It wasn’t even the greatest goal Bayern scored in this game. However, that opening goal, which the only way Robert Lewandowski wasn’t going to score was if he failed to overcome his surprise at being left so much room, was not just a harbinger of things to come, but also symbolic illustration of what many had known.
It was the 10th minute, and Bayern looked like they were hitting their straps right from the outset. A probing, but by no means world-beating, ball from Thiago Alcantra on the left flank found its way to Lewandowski. Koscielny’s stand-in, Gabriel, the last line of outfield defence, came rushing out in what looked like a vain attempt to play the offside trap.
Those can look hideously ugly if they go wrong, and on this ominous night as the wounded Germans looked for vengeance, go wrong it did. Within a split second, Gabriel found the Polish striker three yeards behind him. Petr Cech might as well have turned his back and headed to the net. He was going to be retrieving the ball from there anyway.
But that moment, with Arsenal defender stranded, well behind Bayern Munich striker, yawning gap in between, seemed to be indicative of the gulf between the two sides. It can be closed time and again, but more often than not Munich will pull away, and the difference between Lewandowski and Gabriel seemed not an unfair microcosm of the relative state of the two sides at large.
Bayern Munich had come to extract revenge, and Arsenal were not as abject as the 5-1 scoreline suggests. There was criticism, for instance, when Bayern Munich scored the night’s best goal, remarkably versatile left-back Alaba curling a shot into the top corner any striker would be proud of. ‘That’s too much space he’s getting’, many said. But what could Arsenal do, other than blame Cazorla for losing the ball in the first place? This, after all, is a left back hovering where most centre-forwards lurk, making overlapping runs that would make anyone think the man marking him drew the shorter straw before kick-off.
Do you get dragged into the centre, leaving room for the overlapping run on the wing with space enough to cross? Should every Arsenal player get dragged out of position in a bid to keep up with possession? Off-field strategy is hard enough when playing a team of the German champions’ calibre. Executing those best-laid plans would surely have the Gunners punching above their weight.
If the 5-1 outcome on the pitch could be assumed to be rather a disappointing night for Arsene Wenger, results elsewhere, now so crucial to Arsenal retaining any hope of qualifying for the knockouts, were just as disastrous. At the start of the evening the English side found itself three points behind Olympiakos, who were playing Dinamo Zagreb.
Defeat for the Greeks would have at least ensured Arsenal’s destiny lay in their own hands, for now. Even a draw would have given Arsenal reason for optimism, given Olympiakos’s last two games see them take on Arsenal themselves, and Bayern Munich. However, a 2-1 win on the night for Marco Silva’s side means Arsenal are six points behind second place, with two games to go, the closest a side can get to the exit door without actually having left the building.
So what’s required, then? Two wins in two for the Gunners, and as many losses in as many games for Olympiakos (or Bayern Munich, which no one, rightly, is touting as a possibility). It will require guts, determination, and truckloads of fortune to ensure Arsene Wenger does not suffer his first ever Champions League group stage exit as Arsenal boss.
Bayern Munich’s supporters last week complained of the extortionate price Emirates charges to attend the club’s matches, but as things stand at the moment, no foreign side may have to cough up that amount after the final whistle on Matchday 6.