It was another difficult night in the Champions League for Arsenal, as Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich returned to put pain to the Gunners’ European aspirations once more. From the moment the draw paired the two together again, for the fourth time in five seasons, Arsenal fans were under no illusions that it would be a tough assignment.
After a promising first-half saw the teams go in level, with an away goal on the night from Alexis Sánchez to cancel out Arjen Robben’s spectacular opener, the Bavarians took full advantage of Laurent Koscielny’s forced withdrawal to hit another four past a shell-shocked Arsenal side and put one foot in the quarter-finals with a 5-1 first-leg scoreline.
At the heart of their torment was former Barcelona midfield-man, Thiago Alcántara, who after a quietly effective first-half, in which Arsenal stood toe-to-toe with the hosts, began to exert his authority on the game in the centre of midfield and found himself in the right place at the right time on several occasions to unpick the Gunners. His individual performance deserves due credit, and notably the Spaniard also came out on top in The Boot Room’s own player-of-the-match poll following the game.
It didn’t take long for him to start setting his sights on finding a way through a compact Arsenal defence, drifting slightly out to the right in order to link-up with Arjen Robben. The Dutchman played an incisive pass inside to Thiago, who duly set up Arturo Vidal to register Bayern’s first effort on target, a speculative effort from outside the box that was well held by Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina with just minutes on the clock.
Even after Bayern were stunned near the end of the first-half by Alexis Sánchez’s equaliser, after Arjen Robben had sensationally fired the hosts ahead, Thiago almost crafted an immediate reply, with an intricate curling ball over the top of the defence which found Arturo Vidal on the by-line, who laid the ball on first-time for Robert Lewandowski, who headed over from point-blank range with the goal at his mercy.
The Spaniard was continually stretching Arsenal with his incisive passes and link-up play, but his game well and truly sprung to life on 56 minutes. By this time Robert Lewandowski had already restored Bayern’s lead, rising above Shkodran Mustafi to head the hosts back into the ascendancy from Philipp Lahm’s teasing cross, but it would be the Polish international who would then turn provider, sumptuously back-heeling the ball first-time from Xabi Alonso’s pass straight into Thiago’s feet, who, having made an inch-perfect run, had the simple task of finishing beyond Ospina. It was the old German one-two returning once again, Alcántara’s strike coming just two and a half minutes after Lewandowski’s effort.
And it didn’t take long for the 25-year-old to help himself to his second. After the ball dropped to him kindly on the edge of the Arsenal box following a corner, he let fly with a right-footed effort that took a kind ricochet off Granit Xhaka to wrong foot Ospina, evading the Colombian’s flailing right-foot and creeping into the goal to the delight of the home crowd. A slice of fortune perhaps, but he had done well to find a pocket of space to give himself time to set his sights, after picking up the ball from Francis Coquelin’s weak clearing header.
The midfielder was by now playing with the utmost confidence, drifting out wide in midfield gradually more to play passes inside. They almost always found their target, as he completed 93% of his passes, and he very nearly played in Douglas Costa for Bayern’s fifth on 82 minutes, finding the Brazilian with an incisive pass to the right of the Arsenal penalty area, only for the wide-man’s effort to be tipped away by Ospina for a corner.
Thiago wasn’t to be denied an assist, however, and he helped complete Arsenal’s miserable night after he capitalised on some calamitous defending from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He recovered possession, standing before Gabriel and Shkodran Mustafi, and casually laid the ball off for Thomas Muller to score – the German international’s first contribution after emerging from the bench.
Thus, a performance that started quietly yet effective, but grew in stature and influence as the game went on. Given the way this Champions League is panning out, Thiago Alcántara may yet have a part to play if Bayern Munich are to go far in the tournament. He looks to have already succeeded in at least slamming the brakes on Arsenal, and being in such free-scoring mood as late in the tournament as the knockout rounds can only bode well for the Bundesliga giants and their European aspirations. In Munich he was Arsenal’s tormentor, and for the Gunners to make the return leg at the Emirates a respectable one, they will need to keep the Spaniard in-check, as they failed to do, to their peril, in Germany.
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