Heavily favored Bayern Munich weathered a comeback bid in Tuesday's fixture against English Premier League club Arsenal, but came away with a quality 3-1 road victory at Emirates Stadium.
Arsenal needed several breaks to have a chance to beat the Bundesliga-leading German club. Unfortunately for the Gunners, luck was not on their side to begin the UEFA Champions League Round of 16, and they couldn't recover in time to salvage a point.
A cross by Thomas Muller in the seventh minute was deflected by a Gunner defender, but bounced right to 23-year-old attacking midfielder Toni Kroos. He rifled the bouncing ball into the right corner of the net, beating keeper Wojciech Szczesny to help the Reds draw first blood.
Not long thereafter, there was more bad news for the Gunner faithful: A ricochet off of a corner kick 21 minutes in went right to Muller, who slammed the ball into the top of the goal as he was falling down on the wet pitch.
There was nothing Szczesny nor the Arsenal backfield could do, as the match quickly got out of hand. Soccer Matters host Glenn Davis summed up the early action well:
Glenn Davis @GlennDavisSoc
Men against boys as @FCBayern making @Arsenal look pedestrian. #CHAMPIONSLEAGUE2013-2-19 20:35:14
But there is plenty of hope on the horizon for the club's future, as James Tyler of ESPN points out:
James Tyler @JamesTylerESPN
Don't forget that Arsenal has tons of money to spend this summer so buy your seat renewals tomorrow and watch the rebirth.2013-2-19 20:34:58
That was evident in the second half, when Arsenal suddenly showed strong resilience.
Through heavy traffic on another corner kick, the ball was untouched and bounced right to forward Lukas Podolski. He headed it home off the hop against his former team to cut the deficit in half in the 55th minute.
Olivier Giroud subbed in for Podolski 15 minutes later and nearly notched the tying goal off a beautiful cross from Theo Walcott, but he was denied by Manuel Neuer from point-blank range. That proved to be the best chance for the remainder of the match.
The Germans clinched the victory with an outstanding 22nd goal of the season by striker Mario Mandzukic at the 77-minute mark. Bayern continues rolling through an impressive campaign in which they have won their last six in a row.
It will take a similarly gritty performance for a full 90 minutes by the Gunners in the second leg to have any chance of advancing to the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
This was a better showing for Arsene Wenger's club, which has endured a disappointing stretch on the international stage this season.
Losses to Bradford in the Capital One Cup and Saturday's disappointing exit in the FA Cup at the hands of Blackburn have put some serious heat on Wenger, and the Gunners are well out of the race for the EPL title. That makes the next leg on March 13 in Munich all the more vital.
Here is a look at some player grades from Tuesday's entertaining fixture.
Thomas Muller: A
Muller was definitely the man of the match due to his hand in both first-half goals, although each of them was doused with a drop of good fortune. But Muller set the tone for Bayern Munich early on, establishing his club as the clear favorite despite being the visitors.
As the Gunners proved in the second half, they were fully capable of hanging around. If not for that strong start, there's no telling what Arsenal could have done on its home turf.
Jack Wilshere: A-
The 21-year-old and likely future captain of the Gunners once again showed the type of leadership and promise that has so many buzzing about his extremely bright future. After a rough early portion of the match, that hard work translated to the score sheet, when he set up the Podolski goal.
Equally impressive at each end of the pitch, Wilshere created several scoring opportunities and thwarted others, and his inspired play kept Arsenal within striking distance.
David Alaba: B+
The Bayern left-back is just 20 years old, but like Wilshere, he is playing far beyond his years on the biggest of stages. Alaba denied a plethora of other scoring bids by Arsenal, which really began applying the pressure from the end of the first half onward.
The only hiccup was the Wilshere corner that sailed over everyone to Podolski. But had Alaba not stood his ground on the outside on several other occasions, this result easily could have gone in the Gunners' favor.
Lukas Podolski: A
He may have been the mere beneficiary of being in the right place at the right time, but Podolski's goal gave the Gunners life after what had been a very lackluster performance. He was relieved in favor of Olivier Giroud, but not before creating an opportunity for the equalizer at the 69-minute mark.
Podolski came to play in the second half when his club needed him most, and got some sweet vindication by finding the net against his former teammates.