Arsenal seek to silence doubters as Bayern Champions League test looms



LONDON:

Arsenal are preparing for a potentially season-defining Champions League clash against Bayern Munich on Wednesday as familiar doubts simmer over whether they can handle the pressure after their damaging Premier League defeat by Aston Villa.

Sunday’s 2-0 loss brought back uncomfortable memories for Mikel Arteta’s side, who led the way for most of last season before buckling in the home straight, allowing Manchester City to overtake them.

Long-suffering fans fear the worst again, with City now top of the pile once more and favourites to seal an unprecedented fourth straight top-flight title.

Defeat at the Emirates — Arsenal’s first league loss of 2024 — felt all the more galling after Liverpool’s shock defeat by Crystal Palace earlier in the day put a huge dent in the Anfield club’s title hopes.

Until Sunday’s reverse, the Gunners had convinced many that they were the real deal, adding grit to style as they went on a rampaging run of 10 wins in 11 Premier League matches.

The only blip in that sequence was a hard-fought draw at City’s Etihad Stadium, which in itself was seen as a sign of progress.

Now Arsenal, who have never won the Champions League, travel to the home of Bayern with little time to lick their wounds, targeting their first semi-final in the competition since 2009.

Last week’s first leg at the Emirates ended 2-2.

Normally, Arteta’s team would be clear underdogs against the six-time European champions but Bayern are in an unusual situation — coming to terms with the end of their 11-year stranglehold on the German top flight, dethroned by Bayer Leverkusen.

Declan Rice, hailed as a key cog in Arsenal’s strengthened midfield this season, believes the high-profile game is the ideal stage for his side to show their mettle.

“It’s the perfect game for a reaction,” said the former West Ham player, who moved across London last July.

“We need a reaction on Wednesday night and it is a great chance to show our character and leadership. It’s time to go out there and hopefully get into the semi-finals of the Champions League.

“We have to park this to the side now. It’s gone, it’s a game of football. We’ve lost but we need to bounce back.”

Arsenal were on top against Villa in the early stages but a sloppy second-half performance cost them dear, with substitute Leon Bailey and Ollie Watkins scoring late on.

Thousands of dispirited fans flooded out of the stadium before the full-time whistle, fearing Arsenal’s push for a first Premier League title since 2004 could have been fatally undermined.

But it is too early to draw definitive conclusions about a team that have looked robust until now, taking four points off both City and Liverpool this season.

Arteta urged his side not to lose heart, shifting the focus to Wednesday’s match in Germany.

“We knew that this moment could come,” he said. “Now it’s about reacting and keep believing and doing what we can.”

He added: “If you want to win championships, if you want to be there in the Champions League when you have these moments, you have to stand up.

“If not then that means you don’t have quality that is very necessary and right now is a big test for us.

“We have a beautiful opportunity, an opportunity that hasn’t happened at this club for 14 years to get to the semi-finals of the Champions League, so it cannot come in a better moment.”



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