Arsenal have been here before: Season defining games. And yet every time they come about, they seem to have either a distinct lack of fortune or, slightly more believably, they just cannot play well enough when it counts.
Before the game I spoke of pressing high up the pitch early on, counter-attacking effectively and stopping Bayern being comfortable in and around the midfield. Arsène Wenger's sentiment pre-match cannot have been too different. It's easy to say but to implement it, particularly against this year's Bayern Munich side, is a sign of footballing intelligence. Sadly, Arsenal seemed to abandon this approach and simply obliged in the face of Bayern's might during the entire first half.
After only seven minutes, Aaron Ramsey missed Philip Lahm's low, bouncing cross and Toni Kroos (not Cruise, contrary to what may have been circulating on television) hit a bouncing half volley past Szczesny. A colleague mentioned to me at the time, it was the kind of cross that Alex Song may well have cut out; food for thought. Conceding early against Bayern is ominous and it set the tone for the opening 45 minutes.
Walcott, starting in the striking role, nearly broke through on goal shortly after Kroos' strike but he was shut down quickly in one of Arsenal's rare ventures forward. Shortly after the 20-minute mark, the record German champions were 2-0 up after Mertesacker neglected his defensive duties, allowing Daniel van Buyten to ghost in and glance a header goalwards. Szczesny did well but Thomas Müller toed his parry into the roof of the net.
It was a perfect first half form Bayern, marred only by a yellow card to Bastian Schweinsteiger, which means he will be absent from the home leg. The second period looked destined to be more of the same but when it did make an appearance so did lady luck. Arsenal were awarded a corner that should never have been and when Manuel Neuer found himself in traffic, Lukas Podolski peeled off Bastian Schweinsteiger to score a simple header that must have felt sweeter than his celebration suggested. It was a lifeline and a goal that unsettled Bayern. Not only do they concede very rarely (seven so far in 22 league games) but there have also been very few occasions this season where they have looked unsettled. Podolski's header did exactly that though, and despite taking 45 minutes longer than it should have done, Arsenal had their momentum.
The arrival of Arjen Robben shortly after the hour mark proved that Arsenal had thwarted Franck Ribery, who departed. Aaron Ramsey was having an uncomfortable evening in midfield but the deeper lying Jack Wilshere was once again, Wenger's inspiration, courageously driving at goal whenever he found a yard of space. Despite this, Arsenal struggled to seize on their pressure.
With his team wracking up the yellow cards, Wenger withdrew Ramsey and Podolski for Tomas Rosicky and Olivier Giroud respectively. The Frenchman's first touch was nearly a magical one but his half volley could only force a reflex save from Neuer. Arsenal had pressed all too briefly and without sufficient penetration and as a result, lost their momentum.
Sensing this, Bayern pounced. Mandzukic controlled well from a long pass before feeding Robben. The Dutchman put the overlapping Lahm through and the Croatian looped his low cross past Szczesny for his first Champions League goal of the season.
Sadly, it no longer seems a surprise to see Arsenal struggling in these games but that will not stop it hurting their fans. Arsenal's lack of bite in these games is habitual and concerning. Qualifying for the Champions League has been something they have done consistently but so is leaving the competition early. Currently, Wenger's men appear only capable of playing good enough football for small periods of time and that has to change if they are to compete.
For Bayern, progressing is not the issue. Winning it is. More performances like this though, certainly suggest they are capable of reaching their third final in four years.
Arsenal: Szczesny - Vermaelen, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Sagna - Arteta, Wilshere - Ramsey (71' Rosicky), Cazorla, Podolski (71' Giroud) - Walcott
Bayern München: Neuer - Lahm, van Buyten, Dante, Alaba - Schweinsteiger, Martinez - Müller, Kroos (73' Gustavo), Ribery (64' Robben) - Mandzukic (78' Gomez)
Goals: 0-1 Kroos (7'), 0-2 Müller (21'), 1-2 Podolski (55'), 1-3 Mandzukic (77')
Referee: Svein Oddvar Moen