Bayern’s quest to hoist the Champions League trophy gets underway in earnest on Tuesday with the away leg of their fixture against Arsenal. But the Bavarians’ biggest foes could be themselves.
It's an unusual occurrence, and a mark of how superlative Bayern's season has been, that the runaway Bundesliga leaders are massive favorites even for the game in London. Arsenal may be a cut above the opponents Munich faced in the group stage of the Champions League, but their up-and-down form has most pundits convinced they have little chance against a German juggernaut that has only conceded seven goals in 22 domestic matches.
One talking point in the fixture is Lukas Podolski. The Germany forward, who failed to establish himself at Bayern in three years in Munich, has been a hit for the Gunners. Both he and defender Per Mertesacker know the Bavarians from their time in the Bundesliga. But the idea of inside knowledge giving Arsenal a decisive advantage is about as plausible as Dennis Bergkamp suddenly coming out of retirement to bang in a hat trick. On paper, Bayern are the best European team this side of Barcelona – a squad without obvious weaknesses.
That's why they're on course to rewrite the Bundesliga record books. And that's why Arsenal fans, including this author, are very, very worried about this match-up.
Bayern's only problem - if you want to call it that - is the lack of domestic competition against whom to stay sharp. The only other team in Germany with anything like Munich's quality is Dortmund. How do Arsenal measure up? Let's have a look.
Old style with new deficiencies
The Gunners' pride and joy is their midfield. Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere bring an appealing mix of experience and youth, Spanish flair and English grit to the match, and they should be worthy adversaries for Javi Martinez, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos.
Further up the pitch, both Bayern and Arsenal play with a three-man front line, although for the Gunners Podolski and Theo Walcott tend to work more as out-and-out wingers than Franck Ribery and Thomas Müller. As a result, Olivier Giroud usually functions as more of a classic center forward than Bayern's Mario Mandzukic does.
When everything's clicking for Arsenal, they're capable of swamping opponents with wave after wave of attacks. They put seven goals past Newcastle in late December. More recently West Ham were on the receiving end five times.
But much to the dismay of jilted fans, departed striker Robin van Persie has proved impossible to replace. Arsenal struggle to create chances at times and have yet to beat any first-rate foes. When the Gunners don't score early, their back four look as brittle as dried twigs.
Big German twigs in the case of Mertesacker, but twigs nonetheless. If opponents get in Arsenal's way far enough up the pitch, the Gunners tend to collapse inward and have trouble freeing themselves from pressure.
Adding to the sinking feeling for Arsenal fans is the fact that the team's current starting left back, the deliciously named Nacho Monreal, is a cup-tied winter addition, so the Gunners will be playing with a central defender, probably Thomas Vermaelen, at left back. That has Müller, currently on 11 goals and 11 assists in the Bundesliga, licking his chops.
But perhaps Arsenal will get a boost from the man who's had to take a back seat to the 23-year-old.
Roiled Robben and Manny Four Fingers
Ahead of the match, Wilshere was trying to summon up the spectre of Chelsea's unlikely triumph over Bayern in last year's Champions League final. And while they're clutching at straws, Arsenal fans may also hope that the Bavarians suffer from some internal distractions.
After Bayern's most recent victory over Wolfsburg, Arjen Robben vented his frustration at falling below Müller on the depth chart.
"I want to play more - it's simply disappointing," said the sensitive Dutchman, who was again used as a substitute. "The goal [I scored] was nice, but that's the end of it."
An unhappy player with an ego the size of Robben's could be a serious problem, if anyone were taking his disgruntlement seriously. Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes responded to Robben's outburst by praising the winger's desire and work rate - it's hard to image a more relaxed response.
Slightly more hope was afforded for Arsenal by reports that Bayern keeper Manuel Neuer has done something to his hand and will be playing in special four-fingered gloves – summoning up vague images of the Simpsons and their trademark bungling.
Joking aside, Neuer is the only regular member of Bayern's squad who hasn't distinguished himself this season. The simple reason is that he's had no chance to. Most of the Bavarians' German opponents have had difficulty putting shots on goal, and one of the league's great open questions is what occupies Neuer's mind during the vast stretches of matches when he has nothing whatsoever to do.
Arsenal players with hard shots, primarily Podolski, Wilshere and Arteta, should not be shy about testing Neuer from distance for signs of rust. Hit and hope may not fit the Gunners' self-image as the poor man's Barcelona, but it's a legitimate tactical means for a side that in the bookmakers' view need a minor miracle to win.
The far more likely result on Tuesday is that Bayern show how much they've improved, and how much the Gunners have declined, since the days of the Invincibles. Indeed, many Arsenal supporters will be happy if their team avoids the sort of painful shellacking that would bring tears to eyes of even the Thierry Henry statue in front of Emirates Stadium.