18 February 2014

The underdog role fits me like a bespoke Guardiola suit...

Even moreso than last year at this time, I feel about as light and breezy as could be going into this first leg with Bayern. A year ago to the day saw our demolition at the Bavarians' hands in what felt like a death-knell on the season, on any chance of silverware, even on Arsène's time with the club. Coming as it did on the heels of an even more-shocking 0-1 loss to Blackburn in the FA Cup fifth round (a ghost of sorts we've exorcised with the 2-1 win over Liverpool), it truly felt as if it was all over. This time through, we're much improved, of course, and we look to continue competing in the FA Cup and in the Prem—but not in the Champions League. So indomitable is Bayern that no club can stand in their way. Even with the form we've been in, we're no match for Bayern, as most of the predictions call for them to hand down another thrashing. I can live with that.

I don't mean to suggest that Bayern are going to just waltz on in here assuming blithely that they'll win. No, I'm sure they're remembering the sting and the scare we put into them last year. Even Pep, winless in three trips to the Emirates, seems to understand the challenge, saying, "It's my third time as a trainer here to play against Arsenal. I've never won here. I learnt that you can't dominate 90 minutes against Arsenal. It's impossible." However, it must be irresistible to see and hear all of the predictions of another steamrolling. It must be just as tempting to look at the two clubs' recent form—in Bayern's case, "recent" seems to encompass the better part of the last two seasons, if not more—and wonder how on Earth we'll manage to avoid embarrassment.

Our own recent form has faltered recently, what with the tense win over Liverpool, tentative draw with Man U, the appalling loss at Anfield...however, the way I choose to see it, this plays right into the proper narrative. If we were still riding high atop the Prem and despatcing our opponents with ease, the narrative would instead be some folderol about two titans squaring off, the Prem leaders vs. the Bundesliga leaders in a battle-royale. As such, the pressure on us to hold up our end of the marquee-matchup might ramp up so high that, should we fail, that pressure would just come crashing right back down us in an avalanche of disappointments, threatening to suffocate the rest of our season.

Instead, we've stumbled at just about the right time it seems, in time to depress expectations around our ability to match up with Bayern and to stoke the idea that they'll simply put on an encore performance with us as hapless bystanders, extras, or props to the star-performers. As I started with, this suits me just fine. Managing expectations is a gambit, a strategy, just as much as trying to dominate possession or sit back to wait for counterattacks. Defeating Liverpool more convincingly, beating Man U, perhaps drawing at Anfield or at least losing by just a goal might have raised the expectations.

Let's be honest. Even at our best, it would be difficult to defeat Bayern. That's not a knock against us so much as a credit to them. They added to a squad that won the Bundesliga and the Champions League last season to the tune of Guardiola, Gotze, and Alcantara, and they'll add Lewandowski in the summer. To call them a juggernaut is a compliment to the concept of "juggernaut." The more that this becomes a David-and-Goliath matchup, the better. Frankly, I'm not worried about advancing. Last year at around this time (in one of my first-ever posts), I suggested we just roll over and die, so depressed was I after that loss to Blackburn. This time, though, I feel footloose and fancy-free. I don't harbor any notions of advancing, but if we do win, fantastic.

That's the underdog's attitude. Go out there, run around, have fun, see what happens. Do your best, of course, but don't get all wound up about it. A win would be famous (I did suggest one, after all). I'd be thrilled with a draw. A loss, so long as it's not horrifying, I can live with. We'll see where things stand after the dust settles.