LONDON: When many Arsenal fans concede say that the Germans are favourites in tonight’s Champions League tie they do not mean Lukas Podolski and Per Mertesacker.
Both sat out Saturday’s FA Cup second round defeat at home to second division Blackburn and have no illusions about the size of the task for which they were rested.
Podolski has said: “Bayern are definitely favourites but over two games we will have our chance to reach the quarter-finals. We have the quality to do it.”
Mertesacker has not had the easiest time since arriving in the summer of 2011 as something of a panic buy. He struggled to adjust to the pace and power of the Premier League and then, when he had settled in, was discomfited by defensive injuries around him.
Manager Arsene Wenger has been a continual support for Mertesacker but needs the German to re-establish the solidity he achieved in partnership with Thomas Vermaelen last season.
Podolski has had a different set of challenges. When Arsenal signed him last summer fans were intrigued by the prospect of his partnership with Robin Van Persie.
Wenger had hoped that signing the likes of Podolski would impress Van Persie with the club’s ambition and persuade him to stay. All in vain.
Van Persie left for Manchester United and Arsenal have spent all season trying to find the correct attacking balance between Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott and Podolski who is the Gunners’ three-goal top Champions League marksman this season.
Podolski has plenty to prove against Bayern, not least in showing one of his old clubs what they may have lost.
After a quiet midseason he has scored three goals in his last six appearances and totals 12 in all competitions. Oddly, he has never scored more than one goal in a game for Arsenal . . . yet.
Arsenal, famously or infamously, have not won a trophy for eight years so the Champions League remains their last option, after the embarrassment of Saturday’s FA Cup home defeat to second division Blackburn followed their long-ago exit from the league title race.
Manager Arsene Wenger was upset by Saturday’s defeat – as repeated recordings of his subsequent press conferences demonstrate – but remains encouraged by the lessons of history in Europe.
As he has reminded questioners, few gave Arsenal hope of beating Real Madrid and Juventus on their way to the 2006 Champions League final which they lost to Barcelona after the expulsion of Jens Lehmann.
“We have a chance to beat Bayern,” said Wenger, “and we have to take it. We want to be at our best. When we went to Real Madrid they had Zidane, Beckham, Raul, Guti and we beat them over there in Madrid. It’s just down to us to believe we can do it.”
Wenger claims his team have improved on last autumn, strengthened by the return to fitness of Jack Wilshere and contract agreement with Theo Walcott: the creator and the finisher.
Wilshere, back after 14 months out injured, has been compared for talent and energy with Paul Gascoigne except that Wilshere is spared the self-destructive personality of England’s 1990s’ hero.
A comparison with Cesc Fabregas might be more accurate since Wenger has described Wilshere as possession Wenger “Spanish technique but an English heart.”
Wilshere, 21, took up the No10 shirt on Robin Van Persie’s departure, returned to Premier League action at the end of October and scored the first goal of his comeback against Montpellier in the Champions League the next month.
An energetic, ‘box-to-box’ display meant he was an unchallenged choice for man of the match when England beat Brazil 2-1 at Wembley recently. Once Steven Gerrard has faded from the scene, Wilshere is a likely future captain of his country.
He and Walcott should be international partners for a long time. Walcott was earmarked for a bright career when he was surprise choice, at 18, for England’s squad at the 2006 World Cup. Already Arsenal had won the race to sign him from Southampton for £9m.
Originally a pacy right winger, Walcott believes he can match the transformation to central striker accomplished by old Arsenal hero Thierry Henry. Wenger – Henry’s ‘creator’ – has his doubts. But he has given Walcott a chance and the 23-year-old is the club’s top scorer with 18 goals in all competitions (11 in the league).
On Saturday Walcott, Wilshere and playmaker Santi Cazorla all appeared only as ineffective substitutes midway through the second half, just before Colin Kazim-Richards struck the Blackburn winner. Walcott had one late chance but was defied by keeper Jake Kean.
Defeat was the first for Wenger against lower-league opposition in the FA Cup but followed their shootout defeat by fourth division Bradford in the League Cup quarter-finals.
But he said: “If we feel sorry for ourselves we would be completely wrong. We have a massive game on Tuesday night and we have to show that we some response in the team.”