Arsenal FC's hopes may rest on Dennis Bergkamp's shoulders against FC Bayern München.
By Michael Harrold
FC Bayern München coach Felix Magath would have been forgiven for savouring the moment after his side's 3-1 UEFA Champions League victory over Arsenal FC. After all, the English champions had been outplayed and Bayern could look forward to a trip to Highbury with a healthy lead to defend.
Magath, however, was irate. Kolo Touré's late goal, he fumed, had altered the balance of the tie. A lapse in concentration had allowed Arsenal to emerge from what his counterpart Arsène Wenger described as his side's "worst European performance" with a lifeline. Now all Arsenal have to do is grasp it - and with Dennis Bergkamp set to return, Magath's fears may yet prove well founded.
Inspiration and leadership
Bergkamp's absence in Munich was sorely felt by Arsenal, who have come increasingly to look to the 35-year-old for inspiration and leadership. With Patrick Vieira operating below his own high standards and Sol Campbell injured, Arsenal lacked a driving force. At Highbury, Bergkamp will be intent on providing it.
In a season of transition for Arsenal following the departures of Ray Parlour and Martin Keown, the veteran Dutch striker has taken on added responsibility. Teenage compatriot Robin van Persie stresses Bergkamp's role in bringing the best out of his young team-mates, while Thierry Henry credits him for much of his own success. Bayern will be mindful when Henry warns of the role Bergkamp plays in making the Arsenal attack tick.
"When Dennis plays, I only concentrate on going behind the defence," Henry said. "When he's not there, I have to drop back. That's a different game for me.
He's the type of player you want to play with all the time. When he makes a move he gives you the ball and that's a dream for a striker."
Arsenal's balance in attack was badly affected by Bergkamp's absence at the Olympiastadion. His short passing game was clearly missed, as it was three days later against Southampton FC where he sat out the first of a three-match suspension after being dismissed in the FA Cup fourth-round tie with Sheffield United FC.
The characteristic fire in Bergkamp's eyes against United was fuelled by frustration as Arsenal struggled to impose themselves in the imperious way he has come to expect during a decade at Highbury. Time, after all, is running short for the 35-year-old.
Wenger is expected to offer Bergkamp a new deal in the summer, and the Dutchman is likely to accept. Bergkamp may be slowing down, but he is enjoying his football, revelling in his role as provider and scorer, and even has ambitions to play on long enough to witness the move to the new stadium at Ashburton Grove in 2006.
'Joy to play'
Bayern's defence coped well in Munich, but they are yet to face a Bergkamp-inspired Arsenal attack in full flow. "It's not only keeping the ball and having one-touch football, but it's with a purpose to go forward, create chances and score goals," Bergkamp said. "It's fantastic and a joy to play. That's exactly how I want to play football."
Break the cycle
Bergkamp is the only player to predate Wenger at Highbury and he has shared his manager's bewilderment as year after year Arsenal have failed to transport their attractive, winning formula from the Premiership into Europe. The pair are driven to break the cycle and Bergkamp has what might be his last chance to do so on Wednesday. Perhaps Magath had Bergkamp in mind when he berated Bayern for letting Arsenal off the hook a fortnight ago.