Having finished second in the group phase of the Champions League Arsenal were always going to be given a tough opponent in the last 16.
In predictable fashion the Gunners were paired with Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, which will provide a repeat, in terms of opponent as to last year though Arsene Wenger will hope this time he can get the better of the German outfit.
There is cause for optimism for Arsenal, who since being the only side to win in Champions League in the Allianz Arena last season have gone on a great run which this season sees them sitting top of the Premier League.
Last year after losing 3-1 in the tie at the Emirates, it was difficult to see any way of Arsenal getting back into the tie. Especially once you had considered the German team’s strong home record added to the news Lukasz Fabianski, who it has to be said has never inspired confidence in an Arsenal backline, was to play in goal.
Remarkably we were only eliminated on away goals, after a great away performance with the result having worked as a catalyst for the great form throughout the rest of the calendar year of 2013.
This season Arsenal continued where they left off and by adding steel to the midfield in the shape of Mathieu Flamini and more attacking class such as Mesut Ozil the squad looks stronger, as shown by being top of the Premier League.
Players like Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud have also vastly improved on their form from last season, with Ramsey adding goals to his strong performances he showed in the run-in at the back end of the last campaign, while Giroud has had a year to acclimatise to the demands of English football.
The long-standing vulnerable defence looks to have been made strong by Steve Bould with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, who grabbed the second goal back in Munich, working as the bedrock for a tight-knit, solid defensive unit, Saturday’s performance with Manchester City aside.
Even taking into account the six conceded at the Etihad on Saturday, though the hosts had looked threatening, whilst Koscielny and Mertesacker were together at the centre of defence only two goals had been conceded.
Since the win in Munich there also seems to be a collectivisation within the team, each player is as important as the man next to him rather than having one stand-out player pull the team through tough times as has been the case in recent years.
Against Bayern, Arsene Wenger’s men will have to stay strong given the class of the opponents, who themselves have also strengthened and with Guardiola as a manager they look as though they are only heading in one direction but even City showed in the final group match, they are not invincible.
Saturday’s result against City could be demoralising, but one thing it will show is the character of the current crop of players. It was not the kind of performance we have become accustomed to seeing from Arsenal, who looked unable to cope with the power of City.
However, having gone to Germany and almost caused one of the biggest shocks in last season’s competition, clawed back fourth spot from Tottenham Hotspur last time out and gained Champions League qualification this squad appears use to performing when they have their backs to the wall.
Guardiola’s record is another reason for optimism.
In his two visits to the Emirates, in consecutive season having travelled with Barcelona in the 2009-10 campaign and the 2010-11 season, he is yet to win.
Despite taking a two-goal lead on his first visit in March 2010 through Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s first goals on English soil. First Theo Walcott and then a Cesc Fabregas penalty, despite having a fractured leg levelled the tie before a 4-1 defeat mastermind by a certain Lionel Messi in the Nou Camp ended Arsenal’s campaign.
The next season saw one of, if not the greatest Arsenal victory in the Champions League in the Emirates.
Barcelona had failed to defend their crown the year before and were the clear favourites going into the 2010-11 tournament as would be expected with their plethora talent meaning expectancy was low for Arsene Wenger’s team.
What followed was a magnificent, end-to-end match with both sides trying to outpass and out manoeuvre one another.
The visitors took the lead through David Villa before first Robin van Persie finished emphatically before Andrey Arshavin wrapped things up with a measured finish on the night Jack Wilshere announced himself on the world stage as Fabregas and Wilshere went toe-to-toe with Iniesta and Xavi.
Again it was the away tie that was Arsenal’s undoing going down 3-1.
Not only after Wojciech Szczesny was subbed due to injuring his fingers were Arsenal up against it but also due to van Persie harshly being dealt a second yellow for time wasting when flagged offside though he protested he had not heard the whistle.
At that stage Arsenal were on terms with the Catalans after Sergio Busquets had scored an own goal after Messi again had scored vs Arsenal in the Nou Camp, and he did so again after Xavi scored.
The aim for Arsenal will be to keep up the unbeaten record against Pep Guardiola at the Emirates and repeat last season’s heroics in Germany.