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After Villa misfire, Gunners aim to hit European target

Updated: 2024-04-17 09:42
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Arsenal's Ukrainian defender #35 Oleksandr Zinchenko passes the ball during the English Premier League football match between Arsenal and Aston Villa at the Emirates Stadium in London on April 14, 2024. 

LONDON — Arsenal is preparing for a potentially season-defining Champions League clash against Bayern Munich on Wednesday as familiar doubts simmer over whether it can handle the pressure, following its damaging Premier League defeat by Aston Villa.

Sunday's 2-0 loss brought back uncomfortable memories for Mikel Arteta's side, which led the way for most of last season, before buckling on the home straight, allowing Manchester City to sweep past.

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

Defeat at the Emirates — Arsenal's first league loss of 2024 — felt all the more galling after Liverpool's shock defeat to 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, blending grit and 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, which has never won the Champions League, travels to Bavaria with little time to lick its wounds, targeting its first semifinal in the competition since 2009.

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

Normally, Arteta's team would be clear underdog against the six-time European champion, but Bayern is in an unusual situation — coming to terms with the end of its 11-year stranglehold on the German top flight after being dethroned by a rampant 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 upon which his side can show its mettle.

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

"It is a great chance to show our character and leadership. It's time to go out there and hopefully get into the semifinals of the Champions League.

"We have to park this to the side now," he said of Sunday's loss. "It's gone, it's a game of football. We've lost but we need to bounce back."

Arsenal was on top against Villa in the early stages, but a sloppy second-half performance cost it dear, with 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 had, again, been fatally undermined.

But, it is too early to draw definitive conclusions about a team that has 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 to 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 the quality that is very necessary. Right now it 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 semifinals of the Champions League — so it cannot come at a better moment."

Bayern veteran Thomas Mueller, who has two Champions League titles, wrote on social media that the focus was all on Europe.

"These nights, this pressure, this special atmosphere in the Allianz Arena: I'm looking forward to it."


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