Brave Arsenal crash out despite victory in Munich
Bayern Munich 0 Arsenal 2 (3-3 on aggregate; Bayern Munich win on away goals)
Dignity in elimination, victory in defeat, a rare humbling of the mighty Bayern Munich - and just one goal away from the most memorable comeback since, well, Tuesday at the Nou Camp. This is Arsenal in 2013, a mix of hope and disappointment whose speciality has become a strange kind of heroic failure.
First of all, let us give Arsenal their due for beating a Bayern side that has lost just two games previously all season and saw an 11-match winning streak come to an end last night. Yes, Bayern looked pretty ordinary at times and their unfortunate habit of choking against English clubs in Europe almost came back to haunt them again.
But in the end the German side held out against that third goal that would have sent Arsenal into the quarter-finals of the competition and went through on away goals. What a funny old game, in which Arsenal took the lead in the third minute through Olivier Giroud and, seemingly so relieved to have clawed back some pride, only really looked like they had Bayern on the rack in the final 10 minutes.
Not until Laurent Koscielny added the second goal with four minutes eft did a raw panic grip the subdued crowd at the Allianz Arena. Good grief, could chaotic old Arsenal actually pull this one off? It was only last May that the locals watched in horror as Chelsea came back at them and pinched the European Cup in their own stadium.
Not this time. Not another heroic comeback against the odds. But for Arsenal's players and Arsène Wenger in particular, this was an important evening of face-saving. When the team went to salute their travelling support at the end the fans responded with true appreciation of a performance that must have surprised them.
For much of the game, the plan to contain Bayern worked well and it helped that the finishing of the Bundesliga's runaway leaders was badly off-beam. In the second half in particular, the German side were very much on top and had Arjen Robben in particular been able to beat Lukasz Fabianski in the Arsenal goal in the 68th minute it would have been very different.
Eventually that 3-1 defeat at the Emirates on 19 February was simply far too great a deficit for Arsenal ever to overhaul and afterwards Wenger mentioned the damage that the third Bayern goal that night, scored by Mario Mandzukic with 13 minutes of the game remaining, had inflicted on his side.
It has been a habit of this Arsenal team to pull out a performance when, let's face it, the real opportunity has passed them by. Last night was undoubtedly a step forward but whether they can turn this kind of resilience into a precious three points against Swansea on Saturday still remains to be seen.
It was not a team selection that suggested Wenger was prepared to accept the inevitability of defeat, with the likes of Theo Walcott, Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla present in the starting line-up. Sure, there was Fabianski making his first start in more than a year, a decision that Wenger is yet to explain satisfactorily, but the biggest decision was Thomas Vermaelen's omission.
Not injured, not jaded and not rested. Just dropped by the looks of it. The Arsenal captain, who was the club's designated player at Tuesday's Uefa press conference, was soon warming-up vigorously on the touchline. His form was poor against Tottenham, it has been dubious all season, but even so Wenger has been loyal to lesser performers.
Asked about that Vermaelen decision, Wenger replied: "I don't want to explain too much." In Vermaelen's absence, Per Mertesacker and Koscielny in the centre of defence looked significantly more confident than they have done in a while. It was notable that Bayern, while pushing Arsenal hard at times did not carve out much in the way of chances until the second half and were not particularly threatening at set-pieces.
Kieran Gibbs came in a left-back and on the other flank Carl Jenkinson looked composed at right-back and his calm facing down of Robben on 27 minutes, before dispossessing the winger, was a sign of this young man's potential.
And then there was the first Arsenal goal. It arrived within three minutes, less than time than it took Lionel Messi to score against Milan on Tuesday. The ball was worked right to Walcott by Tomas Rosicky and the Englishman's decisive cross was met hard by Giroud.
Wenger's side never quite created anything as good in the first half although you did get the feeling that every time Walcott had the ball at his feet on the right, he had the beating of David Alaba. He struck one more inviting ball across the face of the goal in 31 minutes that no team-mate could get a toe onto.
Arsenal struggled to retain the ball for long periods and missed the influence of Jack Wilshere in the centre. But for that period at least they threw a spanner in the works of the great Bayern machine that was without the injured Franck Ribéry and the suspended Bastian Schweinsteiger.
In truth, Bayern struggled all night to find any rhythm but then so too did Arsenal. Rather it was the home side who made the running. There was a cross from Thomas Müller that went under Fabianski, the first time the stand-in goalkeeper had made an error all night. Fabianski redeemed himself with an excellent instinctive save from Robben when the player was put through on goal by Müller's flick.
Not until the last 18 minutes did Wenger truly roll the dice and try to reconfigure his team to one that was chasing a cup tie. He brought on Gervinho for Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Walcott. Gervinho was unlucky on 79 minutes with a shot that beat Manuel Neuer but crept just past his post.
Then, with five minutes remaining, Koscielny headed a Cazorla corner past Neuer and all hell broke loose as the Arsenal players tried to get the ball from the goalkeeper and get the game restarted. There were nine bookings in a match that barely had any tension in it for 85 minutes. At least Arsenal could claim they were still competing to the final whistle.
Man of the match Koscielny.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee P Kralovec (Cz Rep).
Quarter-final: Draw details
* Malaga continued their fairytale debut season in the Champions League as they beat Porto 2-0 tonight to complete a 2-1 aggregate win and take the final quarter-final spot. Isco and Roque Santa Cruz scored for the Spaniards.
The last eight
Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Galatasaray, Juventus, Malaga, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid
Draw takes place on Friday at 11am in Nyon, live on Eurosport and Sky Sports News. Matches will be played 2/3 & 9/10 April. The draw is open and unseeded
Belfast Telegraph Digital