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London – It MAY have been a miskick in the teeth but the goal scooped into the net by Mario Mandzukic in London three weeks ago seems to have cleared Arsene Wenger’s head.
Two-one down and Wenger would have been tempted to pursue the might of Bayern Munich with his usual free-spirited aggression. The Mandzukic goal and a 3-1 deficit have injected realism and a little sadness into the tie.
It would never have happened with Thierry Henry up front, or Robin van Persie for that matter. Nothing was a lost cause for Arsenal when they had top-tier match-winners in their midst.
As Wenger said, they won in Madrid, they won in Milan but suddenly a routine fixture at Swansea on Saturday has greater implications than the glitz of this Champions League tie in Munich.
Wenger’s priorities are clear and, by adding this game to a weekend freed from FA Cup commitments by the embarrassing home defeat by Blackburn and this month’s international break, he has taken a physical load from his players.
Jack Wilshere, the team’s heartbeat, can sun himself in Dubai and relax for nearly a month at the cost of only one Barclays Premier League game.
Wenger had hoped to have Wilshere back for Reading on March 30 and must now pray, as will Roy Hodgson, that this is not the doomsday scenario unfolding – the opening stage of another long injury struggle.
Theo Walcott and Santi Cazorla, Arsenal’s creative forces, are expected to be on the bench, goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has been left in London under orders to take ‘a breather’ and no risks will be taken with the slightly injured: Bacary Sagna, Lukas Podolski and, as ever, Abou Diaby.
It exposes Wenger to accusations of lost ambition. A strategic retreat in the Champions League may depress those who recall Wenger the Swashbuckler advancing into Europe with flair and adventure.
This is Wenger the Sensible.
For a start, there is Bayern. Twenty points clear at the top of the Bundesliga, they have won their last 11 in all competitions and lost only twice in 36 this season.
"Bayern made a big impression in the first game, an impression of authority and security," said Wenger.
Then there is Champions League history. Only twice have teams progressed in a knockout tie after losing the first leg at home – and never after losing by more than a goal.
Then, of course, there is Arsenal. Apart from a 5-2 win against Tottenham in November, when Spurs played most of the game with 10 men, the Gunners have not beaten any of their top-four rivals.
Against less powerful Premier League opponents they have been consistent, sometimes prolific. With 10 to play and only one against a top team — Manchester United — Wenger can see a sequence of victories.
Tottenham’s defeat at Liverpool and Chelsea’s fixture congestion offer hope that he can yet extend Arsenal’s unbroken Champions League run to 16 years.
Why risk that by dashing headlong into the second half of a tie which even ardent supporters look upon as a lost cause? Why not protect players? Why not flash a warning around the camp? There is an ominous undertone to this clinical selection procedure for Podolski and Szczesny.
When signed last year, Podolski was touted by Wenger as the centre forward to replace Van Persie. But he played up front only once before moving to the left wing and, more recently, on to the bench.
Szczesny’s form and confidence have suffered amid the open secret that Wenger seeks to replace him and has been scouting Liverpool’s Pepe Reina.
He is fit but the 22-year-old Poland goalkeeper did not travel to Germany. Had compatriot Lukasz Fabianski not suffered injuries, this change might have occurred sooner.
‘With goalkeepers it’s always a difficult problem," said Wenger. "Do you keep them in to find their confidence or give them a breather? Sometimes you need refreshing."
Bayern go into the second leg without Bastian Schweinsteiger and Jerome Boateng, both suspended, and Franck Ribery, who is injured.
But Wenger is under no illusions and must hope his team can play with enough ‘freedom’ to inspire an unprecedented comeback. "It is not Mission Impossible, it can be done," he said.
Bayern captain Philipp Lahm certainly does not rate their chances. "It is a surprise to have no English teams in the quarter-finals," said Lahm. A little premature, but few would disagree. – Daily Mail