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Feb 17, 2014

Arsenal more than ready to take on Bayern

Let’s give a big North London willkommen to Bayern Munich, bullies of the Bundesliga, reigning champions of Europe, and, as the German tabloid Bild screamed after their last visit to the Emirates, “menschenfresser” or maneaters.

Is there an Arsenal fan alive who doesn’t wish to forget that traumatic night a year ago when Bayern feasted on their hosts in the Champions League round of 16? So ravenous were the Bavarian giants that even though the score was a semi-respectable 3-1, it felt like the Gunners and their CL hopes had been devoured whole.

What sadistic soccer god thought it would it be funny to have the two teams meet again on Wednesday, especially after Arsenal’s recent week from hell? It began with the 5-1 dismembering at Anfield that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Then it was on to a dire 0-0 deadlock with Manchester United, a once fierce rival that can’t even beat bottom-of-the table Fulham these days.

Finally on Sunday, with a chance to redeem their Liverpool humiliation in a FA Cup fifth-round match at the Emirates against those same Reds, the Gunners were extremely fortunate not to be two goals down inside the first five minutes. And that was just the depressing news on the field.

Away from it, Arsenal were besieged by a host of distractions, everything from the insufferably tedious Jose Mourinho dissing Arsene Wenger as a “failure specialist," to the suddenly uppity Brendan Rodgers claiming Arsenal had been “nervous” and “exposed” at Anfield to the tabloid scandal of goal-shy striker Olivier Giroud.

That sound you heard echoing across the continent was Pep Guardiola smacking his lips in mouth-watering anticipation of bringing his flesh-eating Champions League titleholders to dine at the Emirates. But wait. Arsenal may have looked like just another tasty snack for Bayern after their jittery start against Liverpool on Sunday, but the fact that the Gunners recovered their composure and went on to pull out a gritty, pride-restoring, Howard Webb-aided 2-1 win to advance to a quarterfinal FA date with Everton shows that they will be a tougher test for the Bayern juggernaut than anyone expected eight days ago.

I happened to watch Bayern’s casual 4-0 demolition of Freiburg on Saturday, and the ease and speed with which they passed the ball around was utterly terrifying, especially when you consider how many of his game-changers Guardiola chose to rest -- Thiago Alcantara, Mario Goetze, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mario Mandzukic -- or that Franck “I should have won the Ballon D'Or” Ribery was absent due to injury and will also mercifully miss Wednesday’s game.

The win extended Bayern’s unbeaten run in the Bundesliga to an astonishing 46 matches and they’re nearly as soul-crushingly dominant in the Champions League, even thumping Man City 3-1 at the Etihad en route to finishing first in their group.

Clearly, Arsenal will have to raise their game to stratospheric levels on Wednesday, which is why Wenger gambled and rested five of his regular starters including the now-we-know-why-he’s-so-tired Giroud, Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Bacary Sagna and Wojciech Szczesny. I have to confess that when I saw the lineup with Yaya Sanogo leading the line, I called out to Mickey the bartender at New York’s Football Factory and said, “better bring me a shot of Jameson along with the Stella.” I should mention that Mickey, a life-long Scouser, had been denied the pleasure of seeing me suffer through last weekend’s mauling by Liverpool because I had been in L.A. and he was keen to make up for it. “I can’t believe you traveled 3,000 miles just to get out of our bet,” he said, referring to our standing $20 wager on all Arsenal-Liverpool matches. “But you have no excuse today.”

Actually, I did. I felt like for the first time in recent memory Arsenal were the underdog. “How many goals are you spotting me?” I asked Mickey, trying to keep a straight face. “After all, you’re the hot team in the league and you can field a full-strength side since you don’t have to worry about playing Champions League midweek.”

“Even up,” said Mickey, slapping a $20 bill on the bar. “You’re at home and desperate to win a trophy and the FA Cup is your best chance.”

I love how Liverpool fans take such great delight in reminding Gooners how we haven’t won anything other than the Emirates Cup in nine years. At least my proud club isn't owned by a bunch of carpetbagging Americans. No, we are superior because we have but a single Yank at the helm, an advantage that enabled Wenger, when he wasn’t feeling sorry for Mourinho and “embarrassed” for Chelsea, to spend the week absorbing the painful lessons of Anfield. If Rodgers thought the Frenchman was about to repeat the same misguided tactics that allowed Liverpool to run riot a week ago, he was sadly mistaken.

With Mathieu Flamini returning from suspension to screen the defense and snapping into tackles in the midfield, Arsenal’s back four was able to drop deeper and make sure there was precious little space behind them for Luis “one goal in seven games” Suarez and Daniel “It’s all about ME” Sturridge to exploit with their scorching pace.

Of course, Arsenal being Arsenal, the Gunners took their sweet time getting switched on and were lucky not to be chasing the game after 10 minutes. It is doubtful that Goetze or Arjen Robben would fail to bury the kind of gilt-edged chances that Sturridge wasted early on. But this was a day when Liverpool’s attacking mojo, so devastating at Anfield against the Gunners, seemed to have left its finishing boots at home. Coming into the game, Sturridge scored in his last eight matches, equaling a club record. But the only noteworthy thing he did at the Emirates was to kneel down in the Arsenal penalty area and help Fabianski tie his shoe so that the keeper would stop time-wasting. It was an extraordinary sight and I, for one, hope he makes it his new goal celebration. Anything would be preferable to his preening funky chicken dance.

As for his strike partner, Suarez was a constant threat, but even the Prem’s leading goalscorer couldn’t conjure his customary cold-eyed marksmanship to beat Fabianski who was immense in the Arsenal goal deputizing for his fellow Pole Szczesny.

Meanwhile, the Gunners were displaying a quality in attack that had seemingly deserted them since Theo Walcott went down with his season-ending injury: speed on the flank.

After spending five months rehabilitating a knee ligament rupture, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is back menacing defenses with his pace and making a strong case for a seat on the England plane to Brazil. On Sunday, the midfielder scored the first goal and made the second but perhaps even more important was the catalytic effect his direct running had on Mezut Ozil.

The German had cut a frustrated figure of late, often drifting out of games against the top teams who harried him relentlessly in the hope of cutting off his supply of killer passes. But in Oxlade-Chamberlain he had a fleet-footed outlet in front of him who could race onto his through balls and cause havoc in the defense. Which is just what happened in the 16th minute, when Ozil’s cross into the penalty area ultimately ended up on Oxlade-Chamberlain’s foot and was lashed into the net. But much of the credit for the goal has to go to Sanogo who used his brawn and height (6-foot-3) to muscle Martin Skertel out of the way in order to chest the ball down and volley at goal before the rebound fell to Ox.

Sanogo is hardly the finished article -- his touch was Ligue 2-heavy and he had several fresh air swipes in the box -- but he is more mobile and less self-mythologizing than Bendtner, and besides, having failed to bring in another striker in the transfer window, what other options does Wenger have? Come back, Gervinho! All is forgiven! And speaking of forgiveness, what heinous crime did Lukas Podolski commit for Wenger to have so little trust in him?

Sure, the former Bayern man hasn’t cut it as a center-forward the few times he has been given the chance to play there. But he still has the experience and guile to be effective out wide, and no one in the Prem strikes the ball with more ferocity. Given a rare start on Sunday, he rewarded Wenger’s faith by scoring the winning goal in the 47th minute and then assured his return to the bench by allowing Liverpool back into the game with a soft but clumsy foul on Suarez in the 59th minute that resulted in a penalty which Gerrard nervelessly converted.

“Are you Fulham in disguise?” the heretofore silent Liverpool fans at the Football Factory chorused in a droll reference to Liverpool’s lucky last-minute escape against the Cottagers last week after the Reds were awarded a penalty in stoppage time.

So when Suarez took wing in the area for a second time against Arsenal in the 65th minute, Liverpool fans howled for a penalty. They might have gotten it, too, had the Uruguayan simply gone down instead of arching his back and egregiously overplaying the contact from Oxlade-Chamberlain. Webb, who only six minutes earlier had ruled in Liverpool’s favor, wasn’t about to do it again even if technically it was merited.

That Arsenal held onto its slim margin in the face of unrelenting pressure from the Reds is a testament to its newfound ability to win 2012-13 Manchester United ugly.

In the end, the victory over Liverpool may not have completely exorcised the demons from last week’s humiliation but perhaps more importantly, it stoked the Gunners’ appetite for revenge against Bayern.

Bring on the maneaters!