11 March 2014

Arsenal exposes Bayern as a pack of flat-track bullies.

Yes, Arsenal failed to match last year's nearly-historic second-leg victory and have been ousted from the Champions League. The 1-1 draw means that, once again, we've been ousted. Were it not for a red-card and the diving histrionics of Arjen Robben, among others, we might have done a bit better for ourselves. I know it's going to sound like sour grapes because, after all, we did lose. However, it's the nature of how we lost that irks. I don't mind having my arse handed to me by a superior squad. In quite a few ways, Bayern are superior to Arsenal. Make no mistake about that. They have assembled one of the best squads money can buy. However, they just can't seem to play the damned game. How many times did a Bayern player go to ground as if shot by a sniper? I could see this coming from an outclassed squad looking desperately for kind of edge, some way, any way, to level the playing field against a superior squad. On paper, Bayern are not that squad, not with players like Götze, Robben, Neuer, Müller, Ribéry, Kroos, Martinez, Alaba, Lahm, Alcantara, and Boateng. Each of these players would command a transfer-fee of £35m or more. Well, maybe not Robben. Why the hell, then, do so many of them resort to diving? Do they not have enough talent, skill, and experience to simply outplay their opponents? When it comes to Arsenal, the answer seems to be a resounding "no."

As in, no, Bayern can't beat us on a level playing field. Okay. So I exaggerate, but only slightly. They did get that first one, the 1-3, but I'm going to attach an asterisk to it. Three yellow cards in the first half, each to a defender (Sagna, Vermaelen, Arteta) meant that we had to play with a great deal of caution. Still, I can't really spin that one away, so I'll admit defeat. Tentatively.

Next, of course, is the level playing field that followed in that second leg, which saw us win quite handily. Even if we admit that Bayern went into match somewhat cavalierly, assuming that they could coast on away-goals, that attitude changed with a quickness once Giroud scored three minutes in, and what followed was some rather-manic footballing as Bayern realized that progress was no longer a sure thing. Only the flukey Mandzukic goal in the first leg and some missed chances in the second allowed them to slink through to the next round, tails tucked firmly between legs (else the swishing sound of said tails send Robben and others flying through the air).

Then, of course, we have the first leg this year, which turned terribly on Szczesny's red-card, which (a) put us a man down and (b) awared Bayern a spot-kick. I'll freely admit that there was contact, and the call is, by the books, the correct one. Even with his charlatan's repertoire of dive-tastic douchebaggery, Robben's melodrama was too much to take. In an instant, I went from dismay (crap! penalty!) to outrage [insert chosen curse-words here]. It's not enough to simply lose one's balance or fall, is it, Arjen? You have to fling yourself to the ground as if you've died, then roll a good twenty yards, grimacing as if every bone in your precious body has broken, writhing around in agony until you hear the whistle or see that played has been waved on. I usually keep this family-friendly, but eat shit, Robben. I don't care if you're allergic to it and go into anaphylactic shock. You're ruining the game with that garbage, and I'm not just saying so because it works to your advantage against Arsenal. It's a deeply personal issue borne of my own struggles as a little, little man playing footy against bigger, burlier, clumsier opponents, something I wrote about here, in case you're curious).

It went on throughout that first leg—despite already being up 0-1 away, despite the man-advantage, despite the clearly superior squad that was on the pitch even before Szczesny saw red, the flops were feckin' everywhere. Skulking away with two away-goals was more than Bayern deserved (even Neuer admitted as much, at least as far as it concerns the penalty-kick and red-card), but it was just barely enough to secure progress to the quarterfinals. What utter, unadulterated bullshit. These are not the tactics of an ostensibly legendary squad. Arsenal are not known for physicality; the idea that oru players play rough enough to inflict the kinds of fatal wounds that Robben, Martinez, and Lahm apparently suffered only to somehow, impossibly and against all medical opinion, summon the will and the fortitude necessary to miraculously recover—almost as if they'd never been injured in the first place. Imagine having that kind of grit, that constitution, that fortitude. Inspiring stuff, that.

And on to the second leg, where, again, knowing they had a the two away-goal-advantage to defend, Bayern were largely content to patiently play keep away and look for occasional chances. However, on the rare occasions that we found an advantage, someone was there to fall down. At some point about 17 minutes on, Podolski got past Martinez, slapped him a bit on the cheek, and kept going. Martinez, however, collapsed as if he'd been hit by a two-by-four, after which he lay prone on the pitch, apparently dead. I've been punched harder than that and barely flinched. I'm not saying I'm tough, but compared to Martinez, I'm a goddamn Superman. He lay on the pitch for damn-near a minute, long after the play was over, until being comforted by teammates and the referee. The offenses are too numerous to enumarate, unfortunately, but I am more than happy to focus on two moments of poetic justice:
  1. Podolski's goal. Did he foul Lahm? I'm not sure. It looks like Lahm overran the ball and tripped, either over his own feet or over Podolski. Podolski, in much the same way you might usher someone to a chair at the dinner table, put his hands to Lahm's waist as Lahm flew past. Podolski then charged in and blasted past Neuer, who, no doubt, was awaiting the referee's whistle. No dice, Manny. Martinez, having recovered from his near-death experience, followed Podolski with his arms upraised, more concerned with working the ref than with playing the game. Justice served.
  2. Robben's dive for the penalty-kick. this time, there was some contact as Robben and Koscielny vied for the ball. However, Robben has this uncanny ability to sense when he's lost the ball or advantage and lost his footing on the lightest of touches—never mind the other, rougher touches he received when he still safely had possession or the other rough-housing he gave to Kos—once he knew he couldn't turn the corner on Kos, he collapsed to his knees, slowly enough for Kos to bump into him again and draw the whistle. Ridiculous. Proving, however, that the universe is held together by stronger stuff, Fabianski made the save. No harm, no foul. Take that for what it's worth.
Fair's fair, I guess. You dive often enough, and I guess you'll get a few calls, certainly more than you deserve. However, you're also going to miss out on real fouls, such as Podolski's potential foul on Lahm. Was the referee moved to wave play on because of earlier dives that had duped him? Perhaps. Despite all of the diving, then, Bayern were not able to defeat Arsenal, proving my original point. Over four matches, we've won once, drawn once, and lost twice. Those two losses may look like countervailing evidence—until we remember the yellows and red that tilted things so heavily in Bayern's favor.

Long story short? Bayern is happy to pummel lesser squads, especially those in the Bundesliga. However, when you put them on the back foot, when they feel cornered, they resort to slimiest of tactics. Why, you could knock them down with a feather. Literally. Babies. Scratch that. Babies are made of sterner stuff. Bayern, however? Not so much.