Arsène Wenger has effectively conceded Arsenal are to endure an eighth successive campaign without a trophy by admitting it may be easier for his side to qualify for next year's Champions League rather than extend their run in this season's competition after Bayern Munich eased to a comfortable first-leg lead.
The runaway Bundesliga leaders deflated local expectations early by capitalising on familiar defensive weaknesses to score through Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller. Lukas Podolski's 55th-minute goal hinted at a second‑half revival but Bayern made it 3-1 through Mario Mandzukic 13 minutes from full-time and might have extended their lead before the end. That has left Arsenal requiring something miraculous in next month's second leg at the Allianz Arena if they are to force an unlikely passage into the quarter-finals.
Wenger, bristling in the build-up, was left crestfallen in defeat, leaving the touchline on the final whistle without shaking hands with the Bayern manager, Jupp Heynckes or any of his coaching staff, and spending 25 minutes after the match sitting alone in the dressing room. By the time he did emerge to conduct his post-match duties, realisation had set in that it may now be "easier" to reach the top four – Arsenal are fifth in the Premier League, four points behind Tottenham Hotspur – to qualify for next season's competition rather than make the last eight this time around.
"Look, we'll have two battles but maybe the easier battle will be to be back in the Champions League," said Arsenal's manager of almost 17 years. "But we have to give everything to try and change things in the second leg. Let's not hide the truth: it will be extremely difficult [to overturn the 3-1 deficit] against a team of that quality. They didn't play two finals in the last three years without having that quality. We have to give our best and hope we have built our confidence up a bit more by the time the second leg comes around because that belief will be needed. We have to try to make the impossible possible."
There was an acknowledgment from the Frenchman that his team's confidence is fragile at present, the mood having been darkened by Saturday's surprise FA Cup fifth-round exit at home to Blackburn Rovers of the Championship. Certainly their lack of conviction contrasted markedly with Bayern, who are 15 points clear in their domestic league and have proved virtually untouchable since returning from their winter break.
"My players gave absolutely everything but we played against a side who have no doubt at all," said Wenger. "They have a history in the last six months where everything is positive, every player is confident to play with full power. That's not the same for us at the moment. You have to give them credit for their class. They are a team of pure class. In patches in the first half it was a difference of quality in their display to ours.
"The results bring those nerves – it's a bit of a vicious circle – and you could see that, especially in the first half. But Bayern is a quality side who can beat anybody in Europe. On top of that we lack a bit of confidence, so that made them look even better. I still have confidence in my players and in my team. On tonight's evidence there's clearly work to be done. But things can change quickly. Three weeks, we can do it."
That seemed optimistic against a side who have been relentless all season, even if Bastian Schweinsteiger will be missing through suspension. The Bayern manager maintained Arsenal do boast "class" as well as "potential", though even he acknowledged the size of the task they must take on in the second leg. "We have seen everything in football but, of course, this season it's very difficult against us," said Heynckes. "I think in our 23 league games we've conceded seven goals. That's amazing. So it's very difficult to score against us.
"Also my team are always in a position to score at least one or two goals ourselves, so we do have great chances to progress to the next round. We won't underestimate them in the second game."
The veteran coach, who will depart in the summer to be replaced by Pep Guardiola at Bayern, confirmed he had not shaken hands with his opposite number at the final whistle. "I didn't see him yet," he added. "But I've known him for many, many years and we have a very good relationship."
Jack Wilshere, Arsenal's outstanding performer, said his side is still hopeful. "It'll be tough away but we're not out of it yet. It's nothing to do with the manager. He puts us on the pitch, it's down to us to perform. The players have to take responsibility: we're man enough to take it."
He added: "The manager has been here for 16 years and he's done a great job. There's always a chance [in the second leg] we take it to their place and we have the players to do it. We just have to start better."