Pitchside Europe

Arsenal v Bayern Munich: The Key Battles

Pitchside Europe

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Javi Martinez of Bayern Munich

Bayern have hit their best form in recent memory: FC Hollywood have not conceded a goal since December 14, scoring 15 times in those six competitive matches. At one point they went four and a half hours without conceding even a shot on target.

They are 15 points clear of second-placed Borussia Dortmund, have lost one Bundesliga match all season, and can afford to leave the likes of Arjen Robben and Mario Gomez on the bench for matches they win quite easily.

The main man is not Manuel Neuer, or even any of his defenders, as well as they have played in that half of the pitch. No, it is defensive midfielder Javi Martinez, who has been a monster in front of the back five, also allowing Bastian Schweinsteiger to spend more time dictating the attacking tempo.

They are relaxed, playing superb football and - discounting Robben’s gripes at being left out of the starting XI - appear to have a settled dressing room.

Arsenal, meanwhile, are about as far from their peak as they have been since Arsene Wenger took charge in 1996.

They lie fifth in the Premier League, 21 points behind leaders Manchester United, and have suffered embarrassing cup exits to lower-league opposition, most recently at the hands of Blackburn Rovers at the weekend.

They concede sloppy goals, fail to create enough chances relative to possession, and make some dreadful misses when they do carve out opportunities.

Selling the best finisher in the division to one of your main rivals and replacing him with a relatively unproven target man from an inferior league is not the best way to win over fans who have gone eight years without a trophy.

So, on the surface of things, Arsenal don’t have a prayer. But if they get things right tactically, Bayern are very much beatable – as Chelsea found out in last season’s final.

ARSENAL V BAYERN MUNICH – FIVE KEY BATTLES

Bastian Schweinsteiger v Jack Wilshere

If Wilshere plays his cards right, he could be to Arsenal what Schweini is to Bayern. Both products of their clubs’ famed youth systems, they are tempo-dictating all-round midfielders, capable of playing deep but most effective on the front foot. Wilshere’s early career has been interrupted by injury, but he appears to have returned stronger and wiser, and without any impediment to his physical or technical capabilities. The main difference is that the German is more adept as a deep-lying playmaker, but ironically the presence of Martinez gives him a roaming brief, while Wilshere has to make the tackles in the absence of a proper, senior defensive midfielder at Arsenal. If Wilshere can avoid getting dragged into a battle with Martinez, and focus on maintaining a high level of possession at the expense of Schweini, Arsenal will have a good game.

Santi Cazorla v Javi Martinez

Martinez’s German record 40 million euro move from Athletic Bilbao initially raised eyebrows, but he has since proved invaluable. Bayern have only conceded one away goal domestically all season, with a back four not exactly known for being watertight – Dante and Daniel van Buyten are not the tightest pairing, while Philipp Lahm and David Alaba are more renowned for their attacking verve. Indeed, keeper Neuer saved a free-kick against Wolfsburg at the weekend, his first act of note in five matches’ worth of football. The big Spaniard has been a delicate enforcer, owning the space between Bayern’s defensive third and the halfway line, while as mentioned giving Schweini more freedom. His size and technical ability make him the perfect modern DM, and one who knows Arsenal’s main creative force very well.

Cazorla’s transfer to Arsenal also raised eyebrows, mostly because it seemed a snip at £17m from cash-strapped Malaga. A more senior Spain international than Martinez, he will find his international colleague a fearsome presence but the former Villarreal playmaker has the quickness of thought and technical verve to pose Bayern real problems.

Theo Walcott v David Alaba

It would be unfair to call Alaba, 20, a potential weak link, but he prefers attack to defence and occasionally shows his lack of years. Converted from a midfielder to full-back out of necessity last season, the Austrian has since gone on to be first choice for the Rekordmeister, allowing Lahm to move back to the right. He has bags of pace, which will be useful against mercurial winger-forward Walcott.

Walcott has hit his career’s best form this season, even while Arsenal struggle around him. It’s easy to forget the England forward is only 23, but his game has changed crucially this campaign in that he is less inclined to run in straight lines, and more inclined to make the right attacking decisions. Alaba is better equipped than most to cope with his raw speed, but his greater tendency to lay balls off and cut in diagonally means Bayern will need to watch him carefully. Martinez could well help here, covering the space between Alaba and Dante, but there is potential for Walcott to wreak havoc.

Thomas Mueller / Arjen Robben v Thomas Vermaelen

Mueller has regained the form that saw him a stand-out player for Germany at the 2010 World Cup. He has also taken Robben’s place in the team, much to the famously prickly Dutchman’s chagrin. Mueller’s best work comes without the ball, his movement, intelligence, willing and precision all very German attributes. Robben, meanwhile, has been limited to a role from the bench since his latest injury gave Mueller a chance, and he could well be used as an impact substitute, as he was on Friday when he scored a late goal in the 2-0 win at Wolfsburg. He is almost the opposite of Mueller, as mercurial as the German is consistent, as keen to run with the ball as his rival is without it, as selfish as he is selfless. What is undoubted is that he is a fantastic footballer, and one who could cause Vermaelen problems.

Vermaelen will have to play at left-back because Nacho Monreal is cup-tied and Kieran Gibbs a perennial crock. Although having a non-specialist defender in that position is clearly better than Andre Santos, who was loaned back to Brazil after one hapless display too many. Vermaelen is not the quickest and will have to be at his alert best against Bayern. Whoever plays in front of him – probably ex-Bayern man Lukas Podolski – will need to track back and cover, as will the likes of Wilshere and Mikel Arteta. Of course Franck Ribery will play the other flank, but his international team-mate Bacary Sagna is blessed with pace and insider knowledge of the France winger.

Mario Mandzukic v Laurent Koscielny

Croatia striker Mandzukic has been something of a sensation since joining Bayern from Wolfsburg, ostensibly as cover for Germany hit-man Mario Gomez. He has bagged 15 goals in 19 league matches, although has been less successful in the Champions League. Rangy, fairly pacy and a clinical finisher, he tends to loiter a touch deeper than Gomez and will thus work the legs of Koscielny, expected to partner Per Mertesacker at centre-back.

Koscielny has the physical and technical attributes to be a top defender, and he usually displays them well enough. However, he has the odd stinker in him and will need to be at his best against the German side, and Mandzukic in particular, whose movement can be difficult to track. The France defender is more than capable of shackling him though, and if he does so it will limit the threat of a side who, while not reliant on the Croat, have him to thank for around half of their goals this season.

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