Bayern Munich vs Arsenal: Last hope or no hope?

Following last week’s eliminations of Manchester United and Celtic, Arsenal are now Great Britain’s last remaining representatives in the Champions League. Fans not susceptive to tribalism may, for one night only, cheer on a club simply for being close to home. But should they bother?

Gunners fans will point to the absence of Franck Ribery through injury and Bastian Schweinsteiger and Jerome Boateng through suspension as causes for optimism. Add to that the potential absence of Arjen Robben due to a calf problem and Bayern are without some key ingredients in what has been an outstanding season to date.
But with the German side already holding a 3-1 advantage, with three away goals to boot, everything points to an Arsenal exit.

Theo Walcott

The current Bundesliga leaders have lost only one league game and one European game all season. In short, the team who were once called “the invincibles” are facing their (almost) modern day equivalent. And in order to overcome them, Arsenal require three goals without reply. This against a team that has conceded only nine home league goals all season, and only one away!

With statistics like that, it is no wonder football observers are wondering what will happen when Pep Guardiola takes charge next season. It is a scary prospect when they are already near-perfect without him.

Arsenal’s last outing was their 2-1 league defeat against Tottenham Hotspur, and Arsene Wenger will be hoping for the perfect response from his team. The only downside is that the perfect response may still not be good enough against a side that almost invariably score. Should they do so, the pressure on Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla will be huge.

Bayern Munich celebrate

Their only hope is to score first, keep it tight at the back, and play the game on their own terms. The speed of Theo Walcott on the counter-attack could be crucial, but against a side that don’t need to leave gaps, it may be in a set-piece – at least for the opening goal – that Arsenal’s best hope lies.

With Jack Wilshere ruled out for three weeks and Lukas Podolski also missing, Arsenal will hope the players they can call on will prevent it being a hat-trick of last-16 eliminations. But with Manuel Neuer in goal, the likes of Philipp Lahm and Javi Martinez in front of him, and Thomas Muller and Mario Mandzukic a constant threat up front, it will take an almighty performance from the London side.

Anything is possible in football, but some things are more possible than others.


Arsenal’s new superstar: Santi Cazorla to give Gunners much-needed creativity

Arsenal have announced the signing of Spain international Santi Cazorla, who has expressed his excitement at signing a long-term deal with the Emirates side. The attacking midfielder could well play an important role in getting Arsene Wenger’s men back into Premier League contention, and his addition to the Gunners’ squad should shorten the north London team’s chances of success with Although Robin van Persie has expressed a willingness to leave Arsenal, the additions of Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski should have the club’s fans confident of an attacking side in 2012-13.

Cazorla promises to give Arsenal something extra that will make them a more dangerous opponent next term. Wenger’s men are blessed with pace and dynamism in the form of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott, but a deft touch in midfield in the form of the Spaniard will be welcome. Jack Wilshere’s eye for a pass was at times missing last season, and Cazorla certainly has creativity and guile in shades.

Arsenal have been quick to act on Malaga’s documented financial problems, and snapped Cazorla up before other sides could get a look in. The signing will not be a household name for English football fans, but the playmaker’s pedigree has been proven in his homeland. The 27-year-old played a key role in the Andalusian team’s transformation from a middle-table La Liga side into a top four team, and impressed in his first season at La Romeleda. Although Cazorla was not given a chance to impress at Euro 2012 as David Silva and Cesc Fabregas were given the nod by Vincente Del Bosque in Ukraine and Poland, his ability at international level has been proven. Cazorla has played his part in La Roja’s success over the last four years, making 45 appearances for the senior Spain side since 2008.

What Cazorla will offer Arsenal is a killer pass, the ability to control possession and an intricacy that will impress the Emirates faithful. If Cazorla can link up with his fellow new signings and the other Gunners midfield men the north Londoners will be a tough opponent to contain this term, and the Spaniard could well be a Premier League star in the making.

Villarreal: The sinking of the Yellow Submarine

While much of Europe focuses on the winners of the major leagues around the continent, the most surprising story of the season came at the wrong end of La Liga as one-time Champions League semi-finalists Villarreal were relegated.

No one would have predicted relegation for the Yellow Submarine. They had not finished outside the top eight since 2002/2003, qualified for the Champions League on three occasions and reached the semi-finals losing out to Arsenal in 2006. Even in the season before their relegation Villarreal finished fourth qualifying again for Europe’s premier competition.

Over the last decade Villarreal have become known for vibrant attacking football helped by players like Juan Roman Riquelme and Diego Forlan. Despite the constant selling of their best players El Submarino Amarillo maintained great consistency replacing their best players with other stars like Nihat, Nilmar and Rossi.

This season though it has all caught up with them. They sold Spanish international Santi Cazorla to Malaga for €20 million and his replacement Jonathan De Guzman failed to live up to expectations. The biggest blow was the injury to top striker Giuseppe Rossi. The Italian tore knee ligaments in October and suffered a relapse when he was due to return for the final few games of the season. Villarreal failed to replace him with Marco Ruben finishing top scorer with just nine goals. They managed just 39 goals in 38 games and their 14 draws proved very costly.

A lack of stability in the managerial position certainly didn’t help Villarreal’s cause. Juan Carlos Garrido started the season in charge but having lost all six Champions League group games, missing out on the Europa League and then a humiliating Copa Del Rey exit to third-tier Mirandes he was sacked. His replacement Jose Molina only lasted until March as the league form failed to improve.

The experienced Miguel Angel Lotina took charge but with the squad unaccustomed to a relegation battle and the new boss becoming more and more defensively minded they were unable to get the results they needed. The last game summed up Villarreal’s season. Just needing a draw against Atletico Madrid at home to survive Lotina opted for a cautious approach which was undone when Atletico scored in the 88th minute and Rayo Vallecano snatched a last minute win at Granada to send Villarreal down.

So what next for them? They can take heart from Deportivo’s promotion from the Segunda back to the top division after just one season. There may also be major rebuilding work to do with the squad. The likes of Senna, Rossi, Nilmar and Zapata are bound to attract attention from clubs in top leagues in Europe. With the backing of wealthy ceramics tycoon and club President Fernando Roig though Villarreal will be favourite’s for an immediate return and could become one of the major teams in Spain again.

By Chris Newman

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