Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich, 2013 UEFA Champions League: Preview

2 Chainz? - Shaun Botterill

In most years, it would be impossible to pick a favorite from this Champions League tie. This season, Bayern Munich are clear favorites against Arsenal, but the Gunners have the talent to pull out a major upset.

Bayern Munich were a good enough team to reach the Champions League final and compete for the Bundesliga last season, but ultimately came up short in both competitions. As talented as they were, it became apparent as last season wore on that they lacked a complete center forward, another passer in midfield, and an athletic central defender.

Over the summer, Bayern bought three players to plug those holes. They now look like an unstoppable juggernaut, posed to compete on three fronts. They're still in the DFB-Pokal, they have the Bundesliga title all but wrapped up, and they're favorites to advance past Arsenal in their Champions League tie.

While Arsenal are still one of the best teams in Europe, they've taken an undeniable step back in the last two years, losing their best player and team captain twice in two summers. A year after Cesc Fabregas made his expected departure for Barcelona, Robin van Persie submitted a transfer request and ultimately made a very unexpected move to Manchester United.

Arsene Wenger bought a number of quality players in an attempt to add depth to the side and replace their output. He was ultimately successful in the former aim, and has put together a solid squad with more depth than he had at his disposal during the Fabregas and van Persie years, but they don't have the same level of quality.

Even while Theo Walcott has the season of his life, Jack Wilshere emerges as a star and Arsenal's summer signings adjust to English football, the club's drop-off from previous heights is unmistakable. They're fifth in the Premier League, out of both domestic cup competitions, and not expected to progress to the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

Team News

Arsenal will be hoping that Laurent Koscielny can recover from a calf injury in time to start the match. If he can't, the Gunners are going to have to play a seriously makeshift back line. They're already going to have to play under less than ideal circumstances, with Thomas Vermaelen at left back in the absence of the injured Kieran Gibbs and the cup-tied Nacho Monreal, but things will get really dire if Koscielny can't go. Bacary Sagna turned in a solid shift at central defense against Sunderland, but Sunderland are not Bayern Munich.

Bayern have some central defense problems of their own. Jerome Boateng is suspended for two games, while Holger Badstuber is possibly out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. One of Daniel van Buyten, Javi Martinez or Luiz Gustavo will have to start in the center of defense. While all of them have performed competently in the spot this year, there's no perfect solution at the position. Martinez is still recovering from a toe injury, but is expected to start, either in central midfield or central defense. Claudio Pizarro is unavailable through illness.

Projected lineups (left to right)

Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Wojciech Szczęsny; Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Bacary Sagna; Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere; Lukas Podolski, Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott; Olivier Giroud

Bayern Munich (4-2-3-1): Manuel Neuer; David Alaba, Dante, Daniel van Buyten, Philipp Lahm; Javi Martinez, Bastian Schweinsteiger; Franck Ribéry, Toni Kroos, Arjen Robben; Mario Mandžukić

football formations

Key Matchups

Jack Wilshere vs. Bastian Schweinsteiger: The two players most crucial to their respective teams in the transitional aspect of play are going to see a lot of each other on Tuesday night. Jack Wilshere has been Arsenal's best player since his return from injury, and the Gunners will need him to be on top of his game yet again. If he truly is world class, he can prove it when he takes on the man who is already everything that England supporters hope Wilshere will become.

Toni Kroos vs. ... wait, who's supposed to stop Toni Kroos again?: Since Bastian Schweinsteiger is the engine of the Bayern Munich midfield, while Robbery provides the flash, Toni Kroos is often forgotten by those who don't watch Bayern on a weekly basis. He's not as tricky as most No. 10s, but he's absolutely impossible to win the ball off of and rarely misplaces a pass. Last season, in the Champions League semifinal tie against Real Madrid, he was a dominant force. Arsenal don't have a real defensive midfielder and/or ball-winner. It wouldn't be shocking to see Kroos touch the ball 100 times.

Arsenal's center forward vs. Bayern's right central defender: If Jerome Boateng or Holger Badstuber were available, Bayern would be heavier favorites, but they're going to have to play some sort of makeshift option at central defense. Daniel van Buyten is back in good form after a long period of looking extremely old, while Javi Martinez and Luiz Gustavo have put in decent shifts at central defense in the past, but none of the three is a brilliant option. While Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud have been very inconsistent this season, there's going to be a weakness in the Bayern back line available for them to exploit.

Wojciech Szczesny vs. Dr. Jekyll: Most of the time, Wojciech Szczęsny is a slightly above-average goalkeeper who produces one or two saves in a match that make him look like world class. Sometimes, he puts together a 90-minute world class performance. Sometimes, he lets his team down with horrible, soft goals that a goalkeeper simply shouldn't be conceding at this level. The version of Szczęsny that shows up on Tuesday is anyone's guess, and his play could be key to the tie.

Prediction

Arsenal aren't going to win this tie, but they're going to do enough to keep things interesting heading into the second leg. Between the less than ideal central defense situation for the Bavarians and an Arsenal team motivated by the fact that this is the last competition they have a chance of winning, the home side will be able to score and avoid demolition. They will, however, concede an away goal and generally look like the inferior side for most of the match. 1-1 draw.

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For more on the two teams, head over to Arsenal blog The Short Fuse and Bayern Munich blog Bavarian Football Works.

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