If Arsenal FC had any hopes that finishing top of their Champions League group would earn them an easy knockout berth, they were so wrong. The reward for their apex finish in Group A is a second round cracker against Bundesliga heavyweights Bayern Munich. Many pessimists and cynics alike have already concluded that it will be yet another last 16 ouster for the Gunners for the 7th year running. Those doubters have reason to be so pessimistic, but from the perspective of the Gunners, the story need not be the same old one this time.
The Gunners have qualified for the top European Competition for each of the last 18 seasons but have never won it. The closest they came was a final loss to Barcelona in 2006. The following ten years have produced a consistently mediocre Gunners showing in the competition as they have somehow always run out of gas shortly after the group stages. The story was the same last season as they fell off the wagon in the last 16 to FC Barcelona. READ ALSO: Which EPL Team Is the Champions League Missing the Most?
The Gunners supporters were fervently praying for a more favourable draw this time as they awaited the picking. Well... Bayern you got, Bayern you must play. The last time the two sides squared up was in the group stages of the competition last season. The Gunners edged their rivals 2-0 in the first leg at the Emirates only to capitulate to a 5-1 reverse at the Allianz Arena. This time the contest ends in London.
Arsenal are a much tougher side to conquer this season. They currently sit second in the Premier League table, three points off Chelsea, after just one defeat, in the opening match against Liverpool. They also finished their Champions League group adventure undefeated as they held PSG home and away.
Unlike in previous years, they boast a solid and settled defence, strengthened by a German summer arrival who will be determined to prove that not all the best German players end up at Bayern Munich. Shkodran Mustafi is the third German national team centre-back behind the Bayern pair of Jerome Boateng and Matts Hummels. He will be out to show himself a match for that pair.
Arsenal also have acquired directly from the Bundesliga a combatant midfielder who knows what it takes to beat Bayern. Swiss sensation Granit Xhaka was instrumental to the Borussia Monchengladbach performance that thrashed Bayern 3-1 in December 2015. If he gets to play, and does lock out some of his disciplinary idiocy in the chest then his tenacity in the middle may help the Gunners weather the storm that will come gushing from the likes of Arturo Vidal, Xabi Alonso and Thiago Alcantara.
Arsenal are capable of scoring goals from any department of their team. Xhaka can hit the earth from the moon, while the improved Mesut Ozil is finally scoring goals on a consistent basis.
The Gunners sure look like the best Premier League team left in the competition... unless Leicester do enjoy another charmed existence. They have the tactical diversity to trouble the Germans upfront. If the channel running of Alexis Sanchez proves ineffective, they can always resort to the physicality and direct route of Olivier Giroud who will enjoy an interesting physical engagement with Jerome Boateng. If he doesn't go missing, there aren't many better passers than Mesut Ozil. Plus, the enormous pace and stamina of their full-backs and wingers cannot be ignored.
Arsenal have also had fewer injury concerns this year. Apart from the long-term absentees Santi Cazorla and Danny Welbeck, most of the squad are fit and competitive. They will hope it stays that way.
Bayern, on their part, though still top of the Bundesliga, have not been at their swashbuckling best so far this season as they adjust to the change of guard from Pep Guardiola to Carlo Ancelotti. The likes of Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid have shown already that with the right approach, the often irresistible Germans can be subdued.
The game is also an opportunity for Arsene Wenger to address his own head-to-head record with the Italian manager. Ancelotti managed Chelsea between 2009 and 2011, playing four league games against Wenger's Arsenal, winning three of them, with Arsenal managing one win. Chelsea also scored 8 times and conceded thrice in that sequence.
Safe to say it is the mentality that will be key for the Gunners this time. They have the quality, and have banished a few demons this season, particularly their usual November unraveling and their perennial "Chelsyndrome", so, why not show the same mettle in Europe?
This is not a time for Arsenal to moan and groan over the draw. This is the time for them to do their homework, within the months that they have to do that. If you want to win the biggest prize, you must be ready to beat the best. They must approach Bayern with respect but not fear.
The psychological impact of beating a giant like Bayern at this stage of the competition would be phenomenal for the players as it will lift their self-confidence if and when they get to face other European giants in the competition. This is not the time for elegies or lullabies. This is a time for a club whose symbol is the cannon to get in the war mood. It is a time to show the kind of fearlessness that saw them knockout the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus on their way to the 2006 final. That is the message, Gunners!