"To be the best, you have to beat the best." This is surely what Arsenal is thinking today after drawing German powerhouse, and last season's runner-up, Bayern Munich, in the first knockout round of this season's Champions League.
Champions League. Champions League.
The name, by itself, represents a league whose members are the best, the strongest and the most difficult to overcome. It should be of little shock, then, that Arsenal are bound to face opponents in the Champions League who are some of the toughest to defeat. Well, they certainly got such a side to face off against come February when they were drawn today to meet up in the Champions League Round of 16 versus Bavarian giants Bayern Munich. To say this is a difficult tie for our side would be an understatement, but as we've witnessed in the past two Champions League knockout matchups against recent champions Barcelona and Milan, Arsene Wenger will not allow his players to bow down to their opposition and concede defeat easy.
Although Munich saw league rivals Borussia Dortmund capture the Bundesliga the past two seasons, they've gained total control of their domestic competition up to this point. They stand at an incredible 13 wins, three draws and a single loss (at home, to Bayer Leverkusen, back on October 28th; their only other loss in all competitions this season was away to Belarusian side BATE Borisov, on Oct. 2nd, in the group stage of the Champions League) with an eye-popping 37 goal differential in only 17 matches in the Bundesliga and holding a comfortable nine-point lead over second-place Leverkusen. Additionally, they won their UCL Group F based on head-to-head results against Valencia, who also finished with 13 points.
Leading their attack is, well, basically everyone on their roster. Their attack is incredibly-balanced; Mario Mandzukic, a forward who was a summer acquisition from VfL Wolfsburg, shares a team-high in league goals with midfielder Thomas Muller at nine, and the next four leading goal scorers are all midfielders (Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Franck Ribery and Luis Gustavo). One could argue that their attack hasn't been bolstered with a plethora of depth and health in the front line, thanks to German international Mario Gomez's absence away due to injury, but that would be an incredible disservice to the rest of stars who suit up for them on a weekly basis and play such an integral role to their side's overall performance.
When I first started following the sport, Munich was famous for employing one of the most imposing and intimidating figures between the posts, Oliver Kahn, who helped drive their - and the German national team - defensive attitude to domestic and European success, and things have changed little with Manuel Neuer in the same role. He's allowed a total of 14 shots out of 25 matches in all competitions this season to get past him, good for a 0.56 goals allowed/match average. Fronting him is arguably the best right back in the world, Philipp Lahm (whose marking ability on the wings might actually be overshadowed by his ability to contribute to the attack; he has seven assists so far in all competitions), and two wonderful, young center backs in Holger Badstuber and Jerome Boateng. Twenty-year-old Austrian international Daniel Alaba starts most matches as their left back.
If there are such things as silver linings, Arsenal should find a key one in Munich. Arsenal generally at their best against attacking sides and Munich certainly loves to play a very direct style of football (they usually start out matches in a 4-2-3-1 set up), with both of their wide backs providing assistance and service to their advanced midfielders and forward. The opposition is certainly going to be one of the strongest they'll see all season, and they'll be heavy underdogs going into the first leg of this round, but if Arsenal can limit Munich's attack and exploit the space their German opponents leave open down the width of the pitch while avoiding their stout defensive midfielders in the middle when they regain possession, then it's certainly not out of the realm to think that Arsenal can shock the footballing world and advance to the next stage.