Arsenal exit with heads high after shock defeat of Bayern in Munich

In the end the damage in London proved irreparable.

Arsenal's calamitous first-leg defeat had asked them to become the first team in Champions League history to overturn a two-goal deficit away from home and this season's Bayern Munich are hardly the accommodating type.

Yet how close they came on a night when the ultimate failure was coated in glory. From the moment that Olivier Giroud put Arsenal in front in the third minute they refused to believe that a third consecutive last-16 elimination was their destiny. Laurent Koscielny's late header triggered an almighty flutter for the team that are Bundesliga champions-in-waiting and decent bets for the crown that cruelly eluded them at this stadium last May against Chelsea.

Arsenal inflicted Bayern's first defeat over 90 minutes since October and there was an array of positives that will sustain them on their quest to return to this competition next season via a top-four Premier League finish. As much as anything, it was their sheer spirit, although their defending was encouraging and plenty of their passing was eye-catching.

It was too little, too late. As has been the case for the past two seasons Arsenal have been unable to find consistency over 180 minutes at this stage. The bookmakers offered 25-1 on Arsenal to progress before kick-off and so Bayern were not the only ones to have suffered palpitations. For Arsène Wenger, it was not quite enough.

Arsenal have tended to give opposing teams a head start, yet they excelled themselves in this tie and Champions League history mocked their chances of progress, as had Bayern themselves. The captain Philipp Lahm's pre-match expression of surprise at the absence of English clubs from the quarter-finals had highlighted Bayern's presumption that the job was done. The last time that they lost by two goals at home was more than two years ago, to Borussia Dortmund, in the Bundesliga.

German confidence was built upon a dominant campaign. They are the yard-stick to which Arsenal aspire, both on and off the field, and their line-up was laced with high quality. Arsenal had been stronger than expected, ahead of Saturday's Premier League fixture at Swansea City, with Theo Walcott and Santi Cazorla selected on the flanks, yet there had been the feeling they needed to raise themselves radically to play the match of their lives.

They made the start of their dreams, one to demonstrate their resolve and demand a response from Bayern. Aaron Ramsey initiated the forward thrust, picking out Cazorla and when the ball was worked to the right, David Alaba, who found himself exposed, lost his footing. Tomas Rosicky fed Walcott and his driven, low centre picked out Olivier Giroud, who gleefully lifted the ball high into the net from close range. The 3,400 travelling supporters felt the injection of belief.

Wenger had told his players to "create the doubt in Bayern minds" and if the soaraway Bundesliga leaders had thought they could simply stroll to victory, they were quickly disabused of the notion. They had not been commanding against Fortuna Düsseldorf on Saturday and the difference between their start here and that which they had made to the first leg in London was marked.

They did no more than flicker in the final third for much of the first half, with Alaba shooting high over the crossbar following a corner and Toni Kroos striking weakly from Lahm's cut-back. There was the sense that Bayern were caught between wanting to attack and protecting what they had.

Lukasz Fabianski, playing his first game in more than a year, was not stretched in the Arsenal goal in the first half, which owed much to the solidity of the defenders in front of him and there was plenty to like about the visitors' football. There was a comfort about them in possession, a crispness in their passing and energy in their pressing. Wenger caught the mood with an audacious flick when the ball came to him inside his technical area.

Walcott was a threat, showing that he has the capacity to worry defenders at the highest level and Giroud was close to converging decisively on another of his low crosses. Even so, Arsenal were still a long way short at half-time.

Wenger's gesticulations showed that he felt the marginal decisions went against his team and, when Bayern emerged with purpose for the second half, they laboured for offensive inspiration. Ramsey pushed close to Rosicky, the No10 but, as the minutes ticked down, Bayern found their strut. They repeatedly tried their luck from distance and although Fabianski was largely untroubled, the ball was at the wrong end from an Arsenal perspective.

The curious thing was that Arsenal did look as if they could score again on the counter. Bayern ought not to have been vulnerable in such fashion, given their lead, but a home crowd tends to will teams to commit, particularly those with the big club's duty to entertain. When Bayern played the ball backwards, their support chuntered.

The hosts called the tune in the second-half. Luiz Gustavo curled just wide and Arjen Robben motored clean through, from Thomas Müller's sumptuous back-heel, to draw a smart save at point-blank range out of Fabianski. The goalkeeper would deny Müller again late on. A Bayern goal felt inevitable and yet Arsenal wondered what might happen if they could breach Manuel Neuer's goal once more.

Chances were scarce for Arsenal but the substitute Gervinho almost wriggled through from Cazorla's pass. And then it happened. From Cazorla's corner, Laurent Koscielny rose to direct his header into the corner. Briefly, there was a mélée as Arsenal tried to retrieve the ball.

Arsenal hearts pounded. But there would be no miracle, no history, even their defiance was a thing of beauty.

Powered by article was written by David Hytner at Allianz Arena, for The Guardian on Wednesday 13th March 2013 21.54 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © wonker

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