The problem with expectations are the perils of fulfilling them.
Both Arsene Wenger and Carlo Ancelotti, two managers at different junctures of decorated careers, know this better than most who have been privy to top-tier gigs.
When Bavarian behemoth Bayern Munich and its Italian cup specialist boss welcomes Arsenal and its embattled gaffer to the Allianz Arena, it will be a clash of two veteran tacticians burdened by the weight of expectations.
Bundesliga leader Bayern hosts Arsenal on Wednesday in the first leg of a Champions League last-16 draw with all eyes on the managers.
Since coming 17 minutes from a Champions League victory in a 2005-06 finals defeat to Barcelona, Arsenal has made it to the Round of 16 a total of 10 times on the bounce, with progression beyond that point stalled by six consecutive losses at this stage.
Paired with consistent top-four finishes in the league without a title since 2003-04, and Wenger’s record FA Cup haul is doing little to paper over the cracks of an increasingly worrisome trophy drought.
In his 21st and most divisive season with the club, dissent continues to grow with reports that the north Londoners have tabled a two-year contract extension ahead of the termination of the current one in the summer.
While success in the Premier League has become the standard by which the second half of Wenger’s tenure is measured, very little was expected of the characteristically timid Gunners on the continent. That is until Arsenal topped four-time defending Ligue 1 champ Paris Saint-Germain for top spot in the group stage this season for the first time since besting Marseille in 2011-12.
And to the surprise of nobody, Arsenal was rewarded for its group stage conquest with a date with Bayern. Like the Gunners’ waning league hopes, its Champions League ambitions suffered a massive blow in drawing the five-time European champ.
It doesn’t help that Arsenal has sputtered of late domestically. Four defeats in its last 10 Premier League matches and unconvincing wins over Hull City and and Burnley have only further dented the Gunners’ hopes on the continent.
Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s visit to the Allianz, Wenger was both reflective of his side’s struggles and optimistic of Arsenal’s chances.
“We’ve had bad experiences against Bayern but we have already won there as well. We play the first game away from home – so it’s important that we protect the second game,” Wenger told reporters, courtesy of the Guardian.
“I feel to have a chance to qualify in the second leg that will be very important. So we must go there, not hide but defend well as a team.”
Easier said than done, but if Arsenal can back up its gaffer’s words, it would go a long way to curbing the criticism of the long-serving manager.
Named Bayern boss in the summer after Pep Guardiola ended his three-year tenure with a move to Manchester City, Ancelotti arrived for his eighth coaching gig with big boots to fill.
Under Guardiola, Bayern won the league three times paired with two domestic cups for the record 26-time German champ. The fiery Catalan entered on the heels a Jupp Heynckes-led Champions League victory, and left failing to replicate that continental conquest with three successive semi-final exits.
Ancelotti was brought in under the assumption that he could translate his past cup accomplishments to Bayern, and after winning Europe’s top-tier trophy on three occasions with AC Milan and Real Madrid, there was plenty of reason to believe so.
The 57-year-old reticent Ancelotti returned to a side that narrowly lost in the penultimate stage on away goals to Atletico Madrid the season before, and expectations were high. Now, Bayern enters a two-legged tilt with a familiar foe amid erratic league form.
Comparing numbers, after 20 league matches, Bayern is just four points behind last season’s standard, and boasting 45 goals scored and 12 conceded versus 50 and nine, on paper, the difference isn’t a noticeable one.
On the pitch, it’s another story, as Ancelotti’s arrival has coincided with the drop in form of first-team regulars like Thomas Muller, who has just the one league goal after bagging 20 the year before. Injuries have also hampered the campaigns of last year’s darlings Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman and defensive duo Joshua Kimmich and Jerome Boateng.
Those setbacks paired with the implementation of Ancelotti’s capricious reactive and adaptive system have seen Bayern drop a level in comparison to Guardiola’s rigid approach.
After winning its group in each of the last six Champions League campaigns, Bayern finished second to Atletico this year to book a date with an opponent accustomed to defeat at the hand of the German giant. Ancelotti may live to regret comments he made in July, when he told Bundesliga magazine, “Bayern Munich don’t mind losing.”
Drop the two-legged tie to continental collapse club Arsenal, and that may soon change.