Monday, Dec 22, 2014

Arsenal have that familiar feeling

Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny (L) challenges Bayern’s Arjen Robben (R) before he was sent off (Reuters) Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny (L) challenges Bayern’s Arjen Robben (R) before he was sent off (Reuters)
By: New York Times | London | Posted: February 21, 2014 5:22 am | Updated: February 21, 2014 12:32 pm

Bayern Munich and Barcelona are among the most accomplished and most attractive teams in the world. Both are capable of winning the Champions League outright and neither needs outside assistance to beat opponents along the way.

They seem to be getting the breaks anyway.

On Tuesday, Barca won, 2-0, at Manchester City after the home side was reduced to 10 men for most of the second half. On Wednesday, Bayern won by the same score at Arsenal after the home side was reduced to 10 men before halftime.

There was nothing sinister or wrong in either case. City defender Martin Demichelis made a desperate tackle on Lionel Messi and the law says it is an automatic red card to deny a goal- scoring opportunity with a foul.

Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny took a rash kick, missed the ball and swiped the shin of Arjen Robben, and once again the referee correctly applied the letter of the law. He sent Szczesny off and awarded Munich the clear penalty.

As it happened, Bayern’s David Alaba missed the kick, hitting the base of a post. But Bayern Munich is too good a side not to hurt a depleted opponent — and fine goals from Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller converted the numerical advantage into a comfortable away win.

DOUBLE JEOPARDY

The rule amounts to double jeopardy. The law states that a foul that denies an obvious scoring opportunity will automatically be punished by the red card. And if it occurs inside the 18-yard penalty box, then the award of a penalty kick (an obvious scoring opportunity) is automatic as well.

Most people of fair mind regard this double punishment as excessive. FIFA sees it as the answer to foul play. The red card is mandatory and the referee has no discretion to decide whether a penalty kick is sufficient. And often — certainly in the two Champions League encounters this week — the game is marred as a spectacle thereafter.

In the words of the Bayern coach, Pep Guardiola, on television after the game, “Arsenal was much, much better than us for the first 10 to 15 minutes. After the red card, it was another game.”

Certainly it was. Arsenal, even Wenger’s Arsenal — noted for its adventurous, even romantic play — withdrew all nine remaining outfield players behind the ball. Against the reigning European champion, that time could not last forever.

MISSED CHANCES

Arsenal had its chances early. After eight minutes, Mesut Ozil, a German and a national team colleague of many on the Bayern team, missed a penalty kick of his own. Ozil had won the penalty award when he tricked Jerome Boateng into a clumsy foul that the Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli decided was worth a yellow card.

But it is a puzzle why Ozil was Arsenal’s designated penalty taker. He had fluffed his two previous penalties and confidence has drained from him over the past two months. But attempt it he did. His run-up was tentative, his shot tame and Manuel Neuer, the goalkeeper who has known all there is to know about Ozil since they grew up together, stopped the shot with a mighty right hand.

So two penalties awarded, none converted. However, with the relentless Munich attacks bearing down, the defiant but tiring Arsenal defense was bound to fall. It did so twice.

At 54 minutes, Kroos, Robben and Philipp Lahm, the most inventive performers on the field, combined.

The shot from Kroos, arched toward the top corner, had just enough swerve and surprise to brush the glove of Arsenal’s reserve goalie, Lukasz Fabianski, before it nestled in the net.

Then, minutes before the end of the game, a Bayern substitute, Claudio Pizarro, made a decoy run to pull Arsenal’s big defender, Per Mertesacker, away from the goalmouth. It was all planned.

Muller, another sub, was fit, fresh and alert enough to strike with a well-timed stooping header.

Arsenal’s resolve was demolished. Every Wenger player, and the coach himself, will tell himself that they won in Munich a year ago, so why would they not believe they can do the same in the second leg next month?

The answer is that Bayern’s players know they were complacent then. They did not need the points, so they relaxed and were beaten. No one dared, as Arsenal dared that night in Bavaria, to take the game to Munich.

HOME BLUES

Bayern has not lost a game it needed to win in the past 16 months in becoming the Bundesliga, German Cup, Champions League and World Club Cup holder.

There is a pattern developing, and not only in Munich. All four matches in Champions League this week were won by the away team. None of the four home teams scored even one goal.

That was the case in Italy, where A.C. Milan, trying to rebuild under new coach Clarence Seedorf, succumbed, 1-0, to Atletico Madrid on Wednesday. Diego Costa, That may have been the closest encounter of the round of 16 games this week, but Atletico often finds a way to eke out a goal in tight contests — and often that way is Diego Costa, whose topwering looping header won it for them.

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