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Repeat matchup is 'ultimate test' for Gunners
by Ridge Mahoney, February 18th, 2014 9:08PM

TAGS:  arsenal, bayern munich, uefa champions league


[UCL PREVIEW: Arsenal-Bayern Munich] Many fans will remember that a year ago Bayern Munich beat Bundesliga rival Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final after those teams knocked off Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid in the semis.

Yet memories aren’t so clear of Bayern’s first opponent in the knockout phase, except to fans of Arsenal.

Bayern narrowly prevailed on away goals after the series ended 3-3 on aggregate. Its 3-1 victory in the first leg proved to be decisive; that victory came in London at the Emirates Stadium, which is where both teams start up again Wednesday (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 2).

 “Last time we were here it was a highlight for all of us,” says Bayern winger Arjen Robben, whose career also includes a stint with Chelsea. “But we are realistic enough to know this is a new season and a new competition and we have to start back from zero now.”

Arsenal emerged from Group F out of a three-way tie with Borussia Dortmund and Napoli. Each team finished with 12 points from four wins and two losses, and Arsenal’s goal difference of three was second-best. Since clinching its European spot in December, Arsenal has fallen off the top of the Premier League standings, though it is only two points back of leader Chelsea in third place.

The Gunners are riding the momentum of a 2-1 FA Cup triumph over Liverpool last Sunday at the Emirates. They had been smashed by Liverpool, 5-1, in a league match at Anfield eight days earlier, and head coach Arsene Wenger espoused confidence while acknowledging the caliber of the opponent.

 “We know we face the competition favorites, but what we have is the belief because we've had big games in the Champions League and in the FA Cup,” said Wenger. “We are in a much better mental shape today than we were one year ago because we lost against Blackburn at home in the FA Cup. It was a big disappointment for us, but this time we defeated Liverpool and we are really determined to win this game.”

Arsenal scored only eight goals in its six group games but midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played in none of them. He suffered a knee injury in the Premier League opener last August and only returned last month. He scored the first goal in Arsenal’s FA Cup victory and played a strong 76 minutes before coming off.  Oxlade-Chamberlain’s presence will be vital, as the Gunners are somewhat thin in midfield. Recent acquisition Kim Kallstroem is suffering from a back problem and is one of three Arsenal players ruled out through injury, along with Aaron Ramsey (thigh) and Abou Diaby (knee). Midfielder Mikel Arteta is suspended.

As it did last year, Bayern is storming through the Bundesliga. A 4-0 thrashing of Freiburg last Saturday ran its league winning streak to 13 games and its lead over second-place Bayer Leverkusen to 16 points. Four players – Franck Ribery, Thomas Mueller, Mario Goetze and Robben – each scored three goals during the European group phase, and forward Mario Mandzukic netted twice in his four appearances.

Ribery will miss the match as he recuperates following surgery on a buttock injury and Xherdan Shaqiri, who scored twice against Freiburg, is out with a thigh problem  The squad has recently been strengthened by the returns of midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger and defender Daniel Van Buyten return from injury.

Bayern head coach Pep Guardiola wasn’t in charge last season; he left Barcelona and officially replaced Jupp Heynckes after the celebrations died down. Bayern hasn’t lost a step under Guardiola’s guidance and like any shrewd field general is a student of history.

 “I know how difficult it is to take the next step,” says Guardiola, a Champions League winner as a coach in 2009 and 2011. “I know what happened last year against Arsenal. Bayern won, but it was very difficult in the last five minutes. We are in the most prestigious competition in world football and in a perfect setting -- here at Arsenal, in London -- so it's a good test for us. We are doing well in Germany, but now we face a good test to know what our level is. I'm looking forward to finding out.”

Asked if Bayern were now the best in the world, Wenger said: “At the moment, you can’t say the opposite. You can only say ‘Yes.'"

He played down the relevance of his personal head-to-head with Guardiola and said that the players rather than the managers would be decisive on Wednesday night.

“It is always the big players who make the difference on the pitch,” he said. “Football is not a chess game. It belongs to the players. We prepare the team to do well but don’t forget that the main heroes are on the pitch, not on the bench.”

Wenger’s repeated reference to the importance of “big players” could be interpreted as a further challenge to Mesut Ozil, who will be the most expensive signing on either side.

“Recognition comes with results and achievements,” said Wenger.

With Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski, Ozil is one of three Germany internationals who is likely to feature for Arsenal.

Wenger also bid for Schalke’s Julian Draxler in the January transfer window and his scouting network has placed considerable focus on the Bundesliga over recent seasons.

“They are now maybe producing more players than France,” said Wenger. “In every single village in Germany you have a football club. "Football is very strong culturally in Germany, stronger than anywhere else and similar to England.”

Jack Wilshere described facing Bayern as “the ultimate test.” He believes that a goalless draw would not be a negative result for Arsenal.

“If it’s 0-0, we still have a big chance,” he said. “We have to be more intelligent this year.”

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