The build-up to Arsenal’s crunch Champions League clash with Bayern Munich has been heavily influenced by talk about a damaging home defeat against Blackburn Rovers and Arsene Wenger’s future, but one particular Gunner could surely be forgiven for looking forward rather than back.
Lukas Podolski could only watch on helplessly from the sidelines as his team-mates somehow contrived to lose 1-0 to Championship opposition in the fifth round of the FA Cup on Saturday, in the process tossing away what most pundits felt was their best chance of silverware this season.
An unused substitute in that 1-0 defeat at the Emirates – and in the previous week’s gutsy Premier League win at Sunderland – Podolski will return to the Arsenal starting line-up for the last-16 first-leg visit of the Bavarians.
And it is fair to say that he will have a score to settle.
Podolski, of course, had a very unhappy three-year spell with Bayern Munich and was sold unceremoniously in 2009 back to boyhood club Cologne, where he netted 33 goals in 88 league games before joining Arsenal last summer in an £11 million deal.
As he struggled to make his mark under the intense glare of life at the club often referred to as ‘FC Hollywood’, the strength of the 27-year-old’s character was often called into question in his native Germany.
And while Podolski apparently bears no ill feeling towards Bayern, you can bet that a burning desire to thumb his nose at the doubters among his former employers – and some other dissenting voices back home – will be fuelling him this evening.
“I have lots of memories of playing for the club and I am proud,” he said in an interview with the Sun.
“I wish I had achieved more there. I won the cup and the league. Playing for Bayern was still a help, in my life generally. But it went so quickly.
“Bayern is in the past. Now I am at Arsenal and looking forward to achieving things here.”
Arsenal are priced up as long as 29/10 to take a lead to Munich, but even if they are unable to win on the night, a fresh and well rested Podolski must surely present a live danger to Bayern and their supposedly impregnable rearguard.
I say ‘supposedly’ because if you had landed on Earth from Mars on Sunday and then spent the intervening period purely reading Arsenal v Bayern Munich build-up in the mainstream media, you would think it impossible that the Gunners can even score at the Emirates.
Yes, I know. Bayern have only conceded seven goals in the Bundesliga all season and just one in 11 away games. Congratulations to Jupp Heynckes and his team on a fine record.
What you probably haven’t heard many people say is that they failed to keep clean sheets in five of their six Champions League group games, shipping seven goals along the way. And lost 3-1 against BATE Borisov. BATE Borisov?! Even Arsenal might have a chance against them, for goodness’ sake.
Further encouragement for the Londoners is provided by some defensive absentees for Bayern, namely the suspended Jerome Boateng and the injured Holger Badstuber.
That means Podolski and company will be looking to get the better of Dante and Daniel van Buyten at the heart of the visiting back line.
One is a late-blooming Brazilian centre-half who remains unproven at Champions League level and will be mindful of how he failed to impress the last time he came to these shores just a couple of weeks ago (I seem to remember him being outshone in a 2-1 win for England by another young chap who might play this evening – he won’t be a threat to Bayern either, of course).
The other is a bloke who is so old that he played for Manchester City when they were actually a proper football club, rather than a money-fuelled, egomaniacal soap opera.
Funnily enough, one of pre-rich-man’s-plaything (but eminently more likeable) City’s most endearing qualities – a capacity for spontaneous, calamitous moments of self-destruction – is one that has also been a recurring theme in Van Buyten’s career. Maybe another ‘moment’ is in the offing in his biggest test of an under-employed season to date?
He is short of games (only five league starts this term) and will be well short of pace if Theo Walcott chooses to drift inside and run at or off him, while he should be having kittens about the prospect of that other English bloke facing him up with the ball at his feet after bursting through Bayern’s midfield.
And even though he may be shackled at times by Philipp Lahm while providing width on the left – not to mention putting in a shift defensively to curb the ever-excellent Bayern skipper’s marauding runs forward – Podolski will also cause problems for his opposing number (and therefore Dante and Van Buyten) when he comes off that flank to attack more central areas.
There are even rumours that Olivier Giroud could be dropped, with Podolski shifting into the centre and Santi Cazorla operating on the left, and such a move by Wenger would obviously make the German even more determined to capitalise on a rare opportunity in his favourite position.
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Consider as well that Arsenal have a formidable home European record – just three defeats in their last 50 Champions League games on their own patch tells its own story – and have had no trouble scoring against other European giants such as Barcelona and AC Milan at the Emirates in recent times.
With all these aspects considered, is it really so hard to imagine Arsenal’s forward players having some joy against Bayern too?
And what’s more, the prices are pretty appetising. Podolski is as large as 17/2 to break the deadlock and an enormous 5/2 to notch at any time, while serial big-game scorer Walcott is available at 15/2 and 9/4 respectively.
Giroud, who has struggled in the past couple of weeks, is also a 5/2 chance to rediscover his scoring boots against the Bundesliga leaders (19/2 to score first and the same to score last), with Cazorla priced up at a tempting 7/2 to hit the back of the net.
Podolski hasn’t scored in six subsequent appearances against Bayern since leaving, but his extra motivation – and the law of averages which, theoretically at least, says the German giants will eventually fall foul of the curse of the old club – sways the balance in his favour.
He generally gets hooked in the later stages of games, so ignore the 17/2 price on him scoring last. But the any time goal is surely worth a go and the first goal punt is one which will pay off handsomely if it proves successful.
What’s that? You want to know what odds you can get on that English bloke to score a goal? Well, I’ll give you his any time price of 6/1 – but no more must be spoken of him.
That’s fair enough, right? I mean, if you want a wider array of prices, you can see all our markets for the game (and sign up for a free £20 bet) right here….