What did this week’s Arsenal-Bayern Munich and Manchester City-Barcelona games teach us? Little that we didn’t already know.
Two of the Premier League’s leading lights faced Europe’s soccer superpowers in the first leg of their respective UEFA Champions League Round-of-16 series.
Both Arsenal and Manchester City lost their home games by a score of 2-0. Both had a man sent off. The managers of both clubs blamed their defeats on the referees.
Barring a dramatic turn of events in the second legs, both teams are effectively out of European soccer’s elite club competition — before many fans in the northern hemisphere have a chance to thaw out.
The lessons from both games are so eerily similar that we can lay them bare in a single piece.
The fact is, defeats against Barcelona and Manchester City taught the Premier League’s European representatives harsh, yet all-too-familiar lessons.
Sergio Aguero and Aaron Ramsey arguably have been the best players at Manchester City and Arsenal this season. Injuries prevented both stars from playing in their teams’ toughest tests. When any team in any sport faces top opposition without their best players, there’s a good chance results won’t go in their favor. We’ll never know how Arsenal and Manchester City would have performed with their star players in the lineup, but it’s reasonable to think they would have done better.
Managers Arsene Wenger and Manuel Pellegrini slammed the referees for making pivotal decisions, which turned each game in their opponents’ favor. Manchester City defender Martin Demichelis and Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny were dismissed for their clumsy tackles in (or around) the penalty area. Both decisions were controversial, but not as controversial as Wenger and Pellegrini would have you believe.
While Barcelona converted its penalty kick and Bayern Munich missed, neither game was out of the Premier League teams’ reach until their opponents punished late-game lapses in defensive focus with goals. Had Arsenal or Manchester City been resilient or dogged enough to hold their opponents to one goal, they would have been able to prepare for next month’s return legs with the feeling that progression to the quarterfinal is more than just a remote possibility.
It boils down to missed opportunities, really. Arsenal had an excellent start against Bayern Munich. Had Mesut Ozil converted an eight-minute penalty kick, Arsenal might have seized on the electric atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium and overrrun the defending European Champions. Ozil missed, and the rest is history.
Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes had a couple erratic moments in the first half, and Manchester City came close to scoring. A one-goal differential would have created an alternate universe for Manchester City ahead of its March 12 visit to Barcelona’s Camp Nou.
Instead, we’re reminded that the Premier League’s big guns can’t yet match the standard that Europe’s best have set. While Arsenal and Manchester City belong at this level (the knockout rounds of the Champions League), both are still growing as teams. We also learned that details often decide soccer games at the highest level … but we already knew that, too.