It was called a shock, but was it really that much of a surprise? Arsenal succumbed to lower league opposition in a domestic cup competition for the second time this season, with Blackburn Rovers following the example of Bradford City and knocking the Gunners out of the FA Cup on Saturday, resulting in the crisis talk that never seems too far away at the Emirates resurfacing with a vengeance.
And that really isn’t much of surprise. Come what may, it will be eight years without a domestic trophy for Arsenal by the end of the season and the only remaining hope Arsene Wenger has of bringing a first bit of silverware to north London since 2005 – if you don’t include Tottenham Hotspur’s League Cup win in 2008 – is by going all the way in the Champions League.
Even the most one-eyed Gooner would struggle to argue a case for that happening. Some may say you only have to look at Chelsea last year (or in fact, Liverpool in 2005) to show that you don’t have to be the best team in Europe to go and win the thing.
But as German champions Bayern Munich lie in wait in the last 16, does anybody really think that Arsenal can match those two most unlikely of successes?
It’s never going to happen, is it? Possessing neither the defensive nous and tactical discipline of Chelsea or, frankly, a player as able to transform games in the mould of peak-era Steven Gerrard, Arsenal are Champions League also-rans.
And the truth is that next year they may not even be that if they are unable to bridge the four-point gap to Spurs in the Premier League table.
There have been many reasons for Arsenal’s decline from Invincibles to title contenders to Champions League regulars to merely top-four contenders – we’d be here all day if we discussed what on earth was going on at boardroom level – but however it has come to pass, the Gunners have spent years selling their best players and replacing them with inferior ones, and the chickens are close to coming home to roost.
Wenger can take the knock at journalists all he likes, as he did on Monday when questioned about the dismal 1-0 loss to Michael Appleton’s Championship side, but the decline has happened on his watch and the Frenchman is rapidly running out of goodwill among the Emirates faithful, with the ‘In Arsene We Trust’ fan club dwindling by number with every poor result.
But can Arsenal shut up a few critics and get a result in Tuesday’s first leg at the Emirates? All logic would suggest not, and even at 5/2, I am not tempted in the slightest.
The draw could become a player if Munich were content with it, but there is no evidence to suggest that will be the case and the play here has to be getting value on the away win at 19/20.
People would say it would be ‘typical Arsenal’ to lose to Blackburn and then beat Bayern, but that is poppycock. Why would it?
Arsenal have beaten only one side in the top six of the Premier League this season – a 5-2 win over Spurs at the Emirates – and that was only once the visitors had been reduced to ten men after 15 minutes.
The Gunners have drawn with Everton, taken one point from two games with Manchester City, lost both games against Chelsea and lost at Old Trafford to Manchester United in the most cowardly fashion imaginable.
So what on earth would be ‘typical’ of them beating a side as good as Bayern?
Because make no mistake, Bayern are contenders to win the Champions League once more. Last year’s beaten finalists are running away with the Bundesliga, 15 points clear of Borussia Dortmund, having lost just one league match all season.
The fact that coach Jupp Heynckes is being replaced at the end of the season by Pep Guardiola doesn’t seem to have altered Bayern’s season at all – Munich have won all four of their games since returning from their winter break without conceding a goal – and they will prove to be far too good for Arsenal over two legs.
And I actually think they will prove too good for Arsenal at the Emirates. Away from home, Munich have been sensational: Heynckes’ side have won 14 of their 16 away games, keeping 12 clean sheets, while scoring in every game.
In fact, Bayern have scored in all 30 games they have played this season, winning 24, hitting 66 goals and conceding just 12. In short, they are bound to score at the Emirates, and Arsenal have their work cut out to score themselves.
So what I’ll do is play the 19/10 that Munich win a match that sees under 3.5 goals. It may be more cagey than expected – Wenger knows the importance of a clean sheet so will not be gung-ho – and Bayern’s away games are not goal-fests: all but one of their 11 Bundesliga trips have been under 3.5 goals.
But Arsenal cannot possibly stop Bayern from scoring and I expect the Germans to prevail at a ground where Blackburn, Manchester City, Chelsea, Swansea and Schalke – a team 27 points behind Bayern in the Bundesliga – have emerged victorious and Sunderland, Fulham and Liverpool have all escaped unbeaten.