Belfast Telegraph

Champions League Bayern Munich v Arsenal: Wenger on mission improbable

By Miguel Delaney

You could sense the mild irritation from Arsene Wenger, but it was this time nothing to do with the ongoing questions about his Arsenal future.

It was about the past. As he sat down for his press conference in the Allianz Arena, the Gunners boss seemed to take it as a bit of a slight to be asked about his side's poor record against Bayern Munich, repeatedly insisting it was far more relevant to "focus on our next performance".

That is probably fair, but the reality is it's impossible to discuss almost anything about this fixture without wondering how past meetings condition it; how it influences every move.

That's because this is a fixture with an awful lot of relevant recent history, probably more than almost any other in the competition's whole history.

Facing off for the fourth time in just five seasons, Bayern-Arsenal is one of the most repeated pairings either the Champions League or old European Cup have seen.

It is only matched by Barcelona-PSG, and only trumped by Liverpool-Chelsea (five times in five seasons between 2004 and 2009) and Bayern-Real Madrid (four times in three seasons between 1999 and 2002).

Unlike those, though, this history has been highly weighted towards one side. Bayern have prevailed every time, either going through or finishing top of the group. That in itself creates a unique dynamic to this last-16 tie, and arguably makes it the most important factor, even beyond the actual quality of the teams.

When you've played a fixture that often, and it always has the same end result, does it start to distort what actually happens on the pitch? Who does it favour? Is there a danger that the dominant team will get complacent as the conviction of their opponent to finally win grows, or will they retain that psychological edge, creating a complex for the team that never wins?

Can familiarity, in short, breed contentment for one.

The managers and players put out for the press conference were naturally reluctant to go into the specific mental or instinctive mechanics of any of this.

Even allowing for the fact that Wenger and Carlo Ancelotti are almost seen as mood-managers and facilitators of expressive football rather than rigorous tacticians, though, it still felt pointed that both referenced "psychology" before the game.

That's what it feels like this game will come down to; whether past results will simply bolster Bayern or sap their drive; whether they will motivate Arsenal or make them intimidated.

The heightened history between the sides appeared to create even more bland Champions League diplomacy than usual in fairly prosaic press conferences, but Ancelotti insisted Wenger's side would not be intimidated in that way. Then again, he probably has to say that to stave off complacency from his own side.

"It won't be a psychological barrier," the Italian said. "If there is a psychological barrier, it means that they want to move from this. Arsenal can play fantastic football. We have to leave them uncomfortable on the pitch."

One positive for Arsenal, though, is that Bayern haven't yet looked completely comfortable in Ancelotti's system. Their patchy level of performance was something else repeatedly mentioned in the build-up to tonight's game, and that's saying something given they have won 10 of their last 11 in a customary steamrolling of the Bundesliga.

Ancelotti acknowledged it himself, although he has never been one to be abrasive with questions or criticism.

"In our job, it's normal to be criticised," he said. "Sometimes we played well. Sometimes we could play better, but in general, I'm satisfied with what we're doing. Tomorrow will be a different game because it's a game of two games - 180 minutes. It will be important to play well, defend well, have balance and put our strategy in the game."

The problem is Arsenal haven't been playing all that well themselves. It sums up something else about this fixture. That pendulum of form and perception has actually swung a lot since they were yet again drawn together in December.

At the time, it was probably Arsenal who were on much better form than Bayern, only for that to invert once more.

It is reflective of their issues, though, that both sides had personnel and tactical issues. Wenger confirmed David Ospina would start over the off-colour Petr Cech, and the two managers faced questions over whether one of their German World Cup stars would be dropped, with Mesut Ozil in such poor form, and Thomas Muller apparently in a poor mood all season.

"We want to play attractive and efficient football and I don't think that is a bad target. We have gone through the group stage and not lost a game yet," said Wenger.

"We had very difficult teams in our group stage - we had Paris St Germain and we could deal with them. Let's focus on what we want to do and not too much on what people say and think. It is really down to our performance."

And not, he would insist, down to the past. Now is the time to prove that.

Independent News Service


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