In a season of brilliance from Bayern Munich and considerable anguish for Arsenal, Champions League success has taken on differing levels of importance as they prepare to meet Tuesday in the last 16.
Europe is now Arsenal’s last route to ending a trophy drought stretching back to 2005 after its FA Cup hopes were ended Saturday by second-tier club Blackburn.
“This shows that we still have to show more maturity on the mental front,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said. “We have to understand what it means to win big games.”
In the Premier League they haven’t been, leaving the Gunners fifth, 21 points behind leader Manchester United and four points behind the fourth spot to qualify for the Champions League for the 16th straight season. Winning the competition could be Arsenal’s only way of remaining among Europe’s elite next season - like London rival Chelsea last year when the Blues beat Bayern in the final to qualify for this year’s competition.
“Arsenal belong among Europe’s best teams,” Bayern defender Daniel van Buyten said. “They have huge potential going forward, very strong individuals and a very good team.”
But unlike the four-time European champions, Arsenal can’t afford to let-up domestically and shift focus to the Champions League.
Bayern has spent the past weeks bolstering its domestic dominance, moving 15 points clear in the Bundesliga while also remaining in contention for the German Cup. “Our team is more homogenous this season than at any time since I joined Bayern,” said Van Buyten, who has been at the club since 2006. “We already had some very good phases, for example a couple of years ago when we nearly got the treble, but now we’ve improved by a few more percentage points.”
No team has scored against Bayern in 2013, while the seven goals conceded and 57 scored in the Bundesliga are unparalleled at this stage in the season.
Winning the Champions League would be the perfect sendoff for coach Jupp Heynckes before Pep Guardiola takes charge, especially given the frustration over last season’s loss in the final to Chelsea.
Arsenal’s players, though, are recalling how Chelsea unexpectedly produced London’s first European Cup by eliminating Barcelona and then beating Bayern.
“Chelsea weren’t having a good season and they got a bit lucky in some games, but showed great character,” Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere said. “We need to do that now and come together as a team ... we have beaten big European teams here before so we need to do that again.” But Arsenal is lacking in confidence, with Wenger describing the prospecting of Arsenal winning a first European Cup as “a bit pretentious,” since the team hasn’t reached the quarters in three years. “We have to give it a good shot on Tuesday night and see where we stand afterwards,” the Frenchman added.
“The players are really hurt, but now you have to take it on the chin and come back with a strong response. Now it is vital for the end of our season that we respond in a strong way on Tuesday night.”