Bayern Munich 0 Arsenal 2
On the day a new Pope was announced, Arsenal required the footballing equivalent of an Act of God to reach the Champions League quarter-finals.
They did not succeed despite a heroic effort, but the manner of their exit — with dignity, heads held high after a fine away performance — offers enough evidence that qualifying for next season’s competition may not be beyond their grasp.
After all, they faced a nearly impossible task here, having lost the home leg 3-1 to vastly superior opponents.
But they demonstrated abilities that many thought they lacked; character, heart and desire.
This has been a tumultuous season for Arsenal fans as their team have again become a little weaker, a little more callow, while their rivals — most notably Tottenham — have become stronger and more resilient.
The manner in which Bayern, who are 20 points clear at the top of the Bundesliga, had swatted them aside last month led many to think another hammering was on the cards. Instead, Arsenal got an early goal through Olivier Giroud and tried to exploit Bayern’s weakness in the centre of defence. They grabbed a late second as well through Laurent Koscielny to bring the tie level, but away goals ultimately cost them.
And there were numerous reasons for encouragement after a victory that in other circumstances would have sent reverberations through Europe.
In defence, Carl Jenkinson was outstanding, while Koscielny and Per Mertesacker fully justified the decision to jettison skipper Thomas Vermaelen.
Lukasz Fabianski did not seem like a goalkeeper who has not played in 13 months, while perhaps most importantly Arsene Wenger’s men showed that they are still playing for their manager.
With a difficult trip to Swansea to come at the weekend, as well as a number of difficult games in the race for fourth place in the Premier League, that could be hugely important.
True, Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta would have wanted to keep the ball a little better, and Theo Walcott was not given enough of an opportunity to test David Alaba, who he got the better of to set up Giroud within three minutes.
There are also concerns over whether Giroud is good enough for this rarified atmosphere, but for long spells Arsenal made an excellent Bayern side appear fairly ordinary
They may have exited the Champions League at the last 16 stage for the third season in a row, but if this is their last appearance on this stage for some time then at least they can leave with their heads held high.
Wenger was proud of his side’s attempt to pull off mission impossible but was also aware that his side’s demise also marked the end of the Premier League’s interest in Europe’s premier competition.
He said: “Our defence played well. They all had a good game. We looked in control and solid.
“[All Premier League clubs being knocked out] is a massive disappointment for English football.
“It’s a massive wake-up call. The rest of Europe has caught us up.”
Reports had circulated before the match that Arsenal would field a weakened side, but Vermaelen was the only casualty.
The defender has endured a difficult season since assuming the armband from Robin van Persie, and many have felt that Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker would make a more effective combination.
Still, it was quite a call by Wenger to leave the Belgian on the bench, with goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny left back in London to think about how he can recover after being “mentally affected”, according to Wenger, by too many games this season.
They key men to have survived the expected cull, though, were Santi Cazorla and Walcott, and it was the two of them who combined to devastating effect for the opener.
It was a simple goal for Bayern to concede, as they left Alaba with a two-on-one at the back post, and when the ball was flashed across goal by Walcott, Giroud was there to tap home.
The home crowd were stung, but Bayern responded well, Thomas Muller forcing Fabianski to save well before Luiz Gustavo shot over.
Bayern were unsure whether to stick or twist, while Arsenal were simply giving the ball away too easily now, finding the right touchline more often than Walcott.
Arteta was nearly punished, Toni Kroos firing weakly at Fabianski shortly before Muller found the side netting when he should have been aiming across goal.
Yet Arsenal would have been happy at half time, knowing their plan was working. But Bayern turned up the heat as soon as the second half started, Arjen Robben’s shot deflecting just wide before Kroos flashed an effort past the post from 25 yards.
Robben then had Bayern’s best chance, latching on to Muller’s flick to race through on goal, where he was repelled by Fabianski’s fine save.
Arsenal belatedly threw men forward, and Koscielny gave them a fighting chance with a header from substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s corner.
But it was too little, too late. They had almost done the impossible, but that final step proved beyond them. It had been a wonderful effort though.
BAYERN MUNICH: Neuer 6, Lahm 7, Van Buyten 6, Dante 5, Alaba 6, Javi Martinez 6, Gustavo 6, Muller 5, Kroos 6 (Tymoschuk 82, 6), Robben 6, Mandzukic 5 (Gomez, 73).
ARSENAL: Fabianski 8, Jenkinson 9, Mertesacker 8, Koscielny 8, Gibbs 8, Arteta 6, Rosicky 6, Ramsey 6 (Gervinho 72, 6), Walcott 7 (Oxlade-Chamberlain 72, 6), Giroud 6, Cazorla 6.
Referee: P Kralovec (Czech Republic).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved